'From Parkersburg to Heidelberg' With Sgt. Paul Gawthrop: His Own Story of His Thrilling Adventures in Germany..."Crossing the Moselle--shells burst--sleep is out of the question."
(Sixth Installment)

This is taken from The Parkersburg News©, May 1945.*

by Sgt. Paul Gawthrop

In West Virginia we would call the Moselle a creek. It lacks a few yards of being wide as the Hughes River. But on the map it is classified as a river, and it is an important stream. Rising somewhere south of Metz, the Moselle winds north between the province of Lorraine and the rest of France and for a short distance it marks the boundary between Germany and Luxembourg. Then the stream curves away to the north and east and empties into the Rhine near Coblenz. In the days of November the Moselle — from Metz north to Remich in Luxembourg-marks the front line of General Patton's Third Army.

At 0400 on a rainy morning the Third Army jumps off on the attack which is to encircle the Metz forts and take us to the line of the Saar. Lt. Moore and I watch the opening of the attack from our O. P.— a super foxhole on a high bluff overlooking the river some three kilometers northeast of Burmerange, in Luxembourg. We are acting as observers for our own battalion of 105s and for a reinforcing battalion of 155 howitzers. The rain has fallen steadily all night-first a downpour at dusk, which fills our foxhole to a depth of ten inches, then an even cold drizzle. Sleep is out of the question, and with German outposts just across the river, we dare not smoke. We lean against the edge of our hole, listening to rain patter on our helmets; the wet soaks through our clothing, and our combat boots are sodden and heavy from standing in cold water.

All night there is sporadic artillery fire, German 88s and 150s answering the flash of our 76s, 105s and 155s. Then, shortly after midnight, all the American guns open up. They hammer German gun positions, roads, pill-boxes, trenches, and suspected assembly areas for an hour. After the 76s and 105s have become silent, our big guns continue to batter the villages near the river: Rusdorf, Kirsch, Montenach, Huntingen, and Kerling. Shells burst and glow briefly; White Phosphorous shell fires houses and barns, lighting the skies over the villages. And across the ridges behind us, our gun flashes flicker and blaze like summer lightning. The German guns have fallen silent, but white illuminating flares go up from nervous German outposts on the east bank of the river. Their machine gunners become jumpy, and they search our side of the river with short bursts. German mortars shell viciously the small village of Rettel, on our side of the river.

A few minutes before 0400 our light artillery opens up again, and pounds the German positions on the east bank of the river. Frantic German flares and signal rockets go up, and the Soluthurns set up a steady hysterical yammering. Our attack has jumped off, Engineers and infantry in assault boats paddle across the narrow river in the darkness, and to the uproar of battle is added the sounds of American grenades and the rattle of Tommyguns and B.A.R.'s. The curtain of our artillery fire moves steadily forward, and one by one the high, metallic brrrrp of the German Soluthurns die. Our infantry has a bridgehead.

Now the German artillery lashes back, slamming shells into our bridgehead, into the river, and into the infantry waiting on our side of the river for their turn in the assault boats. But American batteries of 155s have been waiting for this; instantly they switch from barrage to counterbattery, and the German batteries shut up like yapping dogs who have been kicked-all save a few well masked 88s whose negligible flash makes them hard for our observers to pick up.

Shortly after daybreak the fog lifts. From our foxhole we can see the white chemical smoke which our engineers have placed upon the river to screen the crossing. The villages of Huntingen and Kerling are burning, and through the spotter-scope I can see our infantry-small figures moving across a field into a woods-and a few German vehicles moving back along a road which disappears over the crest of a distant hill. Lt. Moore and I look through the spotter-scope by turns, and occasionally one of us rings up fire direction on the field telephone to report what we see. One of our Piper Cubs, flown by an artillery liaison pilot, approaches from the rear and circles over us. He sees something on the high wooded hill across the river from us, for in a moment a shell bursts four hundred yards short of the wood-line; twenty seconds later smoke from a bursting shell drifts up through the trees halfway up the hill. Then a battery begins searching that hill with battery-one-rounds; the sheaf is correct, and the salvos land thunderously in the woods, six beautifully paced puffs of smoke blossoming simultaneously in a straight line among the trees. When he has combed that hill sufficiently with H. E. and White Phosphorous, the observer banks away and heads down the river.

Shiver in Foxhole

A cold wind springs up, cutting through our wet clothing. We shiver in our foxhole, swear a little, eat a K Ration breakfast, and smoke cigarettes chain fashion. At 1000 the battery commander and Slate show up, creeping through the brushline which runs around the side of our hill, and drop beside our foxhole panting and grinning at us. Lt. Moore and I both being somewhat sodden and plastered with mud and neither of us having shaved for three days, we doubtless present a comical appearance. "Huh," says the captain. "You're a hell of a looking pair. Why don't you shave?" Lt. Moore makes a sour retort about goldbricks who live in houses and sleep on real beds with a stove in the room. The captain grins, and borrows a pipeful of tobacco from me. "Well," he says, "you heroes are due to be relieved at 1200. Fox is coming up with his crew, and you can go down to my house and get cleaned up and get some sleep. I'll put on a can of water on the stove to heat for you when I go back. Might find a bottle of something, if that thieving section of mine hasn't beat me to it." He takes a look through the spotter-scope, scans the hills across the river with his field glasses, and grunts: "Looks like the war has moved on some from here. Can't see anything to shoot at, and our infantry will be out of range for 105s in another hourů.Come on, Slate, let's go. I'll see you two after while." They crawl to the brushline and work along it to the spot where their jeep is hidden.

A few minutes before 1200 Lt. Fox, our Assistant Officer, reaches the O. P. With him is Cpl. Morello. They have brought sandbags, straw and their bedrolls. I bequeath them a shovel, the spotter-scope and four hand-grenades, and wish them a happy afternoon. Lt. Moore and I work our way along the hillside to our jeep, and I hold the throttle down to the floorboards until we get to the captain's house in Burmerange.

There I have a hot bath in a helmet, shave, change into the dry O. D. uniforms in my bedroll, and put on dry socks and boots. The captain finds that bottle aforementioned, and two glasses, and pours a generous libation for both the lieutenant and myself. We unroll our bedrolls close by a stove and sprawl on them, sipping our drinks and luxuriating in the heat.

Lt. Moore wakes me at 1600. We have orders over the telephone to report to fire-direction center immediately. We climb in the jeep and go there, and find all the R. O. and F. O. and Laison sections assembled in a room. The colonel briefs us: Our engineers are now bridging the river. An infantry division has secured a seven mile bridgehead on the other side of the river. Our division crosses the river in the morning, passes through the infantry division lines, and attacks east. Our objective is Bouzonville. The division will operate as Tank-Armored Infantry combat teams, and an F.O. or R.O. section from this battalion will go with each combat team in our Combat Command. He traces the route of advance on the map. Our objective is some fifty miles away. The colonel concludes: all R.O. and F.O. sections will be ready to roll at 0500. Vehicles will carry extra gas, will display red aircraft identification panels, and personnel will have rations for five days.

Maps Issued

The S-3 then issues us our maps and concentration overlays. Lt. Moore and I go back to the house and spread out our maps on a table; we trim the edges and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle, fastening the edges with Scotch tape. The lieutenant starts linking inking in the concentrations on the map and numbering them, while I go out and round up my section. I have the machine gun checked, check the ammunition, and draw an additional 3,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition and a dozen grenades from the ammo sergeant. Chapman gasses up the half-track and loads two spare cans of gas. Phillips gasses the jeep, we load two cases of K Ration and two of 10-in-1 Ration. Manning checks the radio and Vachon the telephones and wire, and we break out plenty of Fragmentation and W. P. grenades and bazooka rockets. When I am satisfied we are ready to roll I go back in and help the lieutenant with the maps. We finish the maps by 2200 and drag mattresses down stairs and unroll our bedrolls over them. This may be the last night's sleep we get for some time; we intend to sleep in comfort.

We roll at 0500 in the morning. The tank-infantry team to which we are assigned is bivouacked in a large wood. We find the team commander and report, and he has his radio technician install the team channel in our radio. We are on 15-minute alert, as the movement order is expected to come before daylight. We sit in our half-track and smoke cigarettes, listening to the rain drumming steadily on the taut canvas top. Daylight comes and still there is no order to move. At 1000 a runner comes around and informs us that we will not move out today; heavy rains have swollen the river and the bridge approaches are under four feet of water-too much for tanks.

By late afternoon word is definite that the attack will not come off until the following morning, and then only if the river is down enough. I take up a collection of all the francs in the section, and send Temple and Vachon out with the jeep to see what they can find to alleviate our K Ration diet. In an hour they return with two chickens, potatoes, bread, cheese, and seven one-liter bottles of Luxembourg beer.

Manning breaks open a case of 10-in-1 Rations, Chapman and Phillips get a fire going and water on to boil. Lt. Moore and Vachon peel and slice potatoes, while Temple and I-brandishing my hunting knife and a straight razor for fine work-attend to the chickens. When the chicken has been cut up and we have sufficient red coals for cooking, Temple French-fries the potatoes in bacon grease. Manning takes care of the canned peas and lima-beans, and I-the experienced chef who once fried chicken in Alemite grease on maneuvers-roll the chicken in 10-in-1 ration cereal, and fry it carefully in bacon grease. In 40 minutes the meal is ready. Fried chicken a la Luxembourg, French-fries, peas, lima-beans, bread and butter, jam, cheese, and beer. It isn't bad, although chicken gravy made with GI cereal tends to be a trifle lumpy. (Note: This can be remedied by rolling the cereal on the hood of a half-track with a spare Cal-30 M.G. barrel.) That night we turn in replete and happy.

We move out at 0500 in the morning. By the time our column gets to the bridge it is daylight. One persistent German gun still lobs shells at the bridge, but since the engineers have the bridge well smoked the fire is one hundred yards downstream. Nevertheless we are much happier when we leave the bridge and start up the road on the German side of the Moselle. Two medium tanks are ahead of our half-track, in our team, and there are two teams ahead of us on the road.

A thousand yards ahead two Piper Cubs circle slowly over the column. We pass a very busy dressing station, set up in the cellar of a ruined house. Medical Corps jeeps, with stretchers slung on racks across the hood and across the rear, dash up to the entrance of the cellar and a moment later dash back empty up the road. Ambulances move carefully back toward the bridge.

We pass through a village, with a hay-barn still burning, and an old Frenchman and his wife shriek and beat a cow and a horse and two pigs with sticks, trying to drive them into a stable. German and American dead lie in the street and along shattered walls where they have fallen. A jeep hurtles past us with a German major riding on the hood. He struggles without success to preserve his Prussian dignity and at the same time to hang onto his cap and maintain his hold on the jeep. Soon we pass through a small woods and see infantry dug in on both sides of the road with bazookas, machine guns and anti-tank guns. I stand up in the turret ring, and loosen the traversing clamp of my machine gun, and place two grenades below the skate-rail where I can get at them quickly. The tanks ahead have already started firing with 50-calibers and 76s searching the wooded hillside to the right of the road. Tracers reach out in red lines from the 50s and probe into trees, and ricochets bounce high into the air.

Our column moves slowly up that road. Once there is a brief flurry of machine gun fire from a point of woods near the road. Tank turrets swing right and the long 76s lift, point, and snap back as the shells slam into the wood. There is a flurry of white among the trees, and the tanks cease firing. In a moment a small knot of gray-green figures comes out of the woods and move toward the road. They have thrown away their rifles and their helmets, and they hold their hands stiffly above their heads. They look at the ground and walk with tired, dragging steps; their uniforms are muddy and their faces gray and set.

Shells Burst

The road winds up a valley and swings left over the crest of a small hill, and our column stops just short of the crest. The lead tank comes up to the crest, halts momentarily, then backs quickly down as three 88mm shells whine wickedly over the crest and burst in the valley to our right. Three more tanks, one of them a Forward Observer tank from my artillery battalion move up, leave the road, and deploy in the field just below the hillcrest. Then, one by one, the tanks move up to the crest, fire one or two rounds, and back quickly into hill defilade. The Forward Observer's message comes crackling back over the radio: "Fire Mission. Fire Mission. Check Point 116 is 400 left, 400 short. Pill box with 88s. Request fuse delay. Will adjust."

In a moment a shell from our 105s comes whispering overhead, and there is a crump somewhere over the hill. "400 over," crackles the radio. Again the whisper and again the crump. "200 left, 100 short, fire battery." The shells swish over at two-second intervals, and we hear six evenly spaced crumps. "Converge sheaf, repeat range, fire for effect." There comes a great rustling and swishing in the air, and a jarring crash beyond the hillcrest as 30 rounds of H.E. rip into the target. "Cease firing. Mission accomplished. Effect good." The four tanks move back onto the road, and the column moves over the hill.

By darkness we have fought our way into Lemestroff-a small village about the size of Mineral Wells-there is a crossroads. By the time my section gets into the village half the houses are burning. We park our half-track close by the wall of a great stone house, and Manning runs the radio remote control cable into the cellar, where the team commander has his C.P. Across the street a pig caught beneath the timbers of a blazing stable screams horribly until a merciful shot from a pistol ends his agony. An old man of eighty weeps, watching his house burn and two young girls who may be his granddaughters lead him stumbling to a cellar; they glare at us, and from their lips pours a steady, shrill stream of abuse. We shrug and go about our business; there will be a lot of buildings torn down and people weeping before we're through.

In his C.P. the team commander gives his orders; three men with a machine gun will go here; a bazooka team here; two tanks to the end of this street; a squad will dig in there. He concludes: "We'll probably get a counter-attack sometime between two and four in the morning. I want everybody awake and at his post at that time. The Krauts ain't coming back in here." He pauses and grins, "I'm the mayor of this town and I want no more Krauts on the streets."

I arrange a system of reliefs on the radio and on the machine gun, so that we can all get a couple of hours sleep before 0200. Two of us remain awake and the other four bed down on hay in a barn. An 88 drops shell after shell on the crossroads, and a German mortar section walks shellbursts up and down the street. But in the hay men snore peacefully as though they were at home.


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* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.