Schmidt and the Hurtgen Forest
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Fourth in a series
For hours, Army Lt. Alvin “Andy” Anderson and the two sergeants with him waited in the cold, lying absolutely still.
Among the three of them, they understood enough German to recognize that the two soldiers in the trench just yards away from them were settling in for the night.
The Germans had a machine gun and rifles. The Americans, having been on the move for a couple of days after U.S. forces were pinned down just outside of Schmidt, knew they had to act soon or risk being shot or captured in the daylight.
Through the darkness, they methodically inched over the ground on their bellies toward the German trench, trying not to make a sound.
They were afraid even their shivering would give them away.
The Germans were asleep as the Americans jumped them and slit their throats — the only assault option that wouldn’t draw attention from any other enemy outposts nearby.
Before dawn broke on Nov. 9, 1944, the three U.S. infantrymen — starved, injured and suffering from trench foot — reached an American camp and discovered they were the only men of roughly 200 caught behind German lines who hadn’t been killed or captured.
In 1971 during the last month of his life, Alvin Anderson often cried out in the night.
He was dying of inoperable lung cancer in his Florida home, and his 19-year-old daughter Deborah sometimes heard the screaming related to Alvin’s flashback dreams.
One particular night, Deborah went to him, and he told her, in a voice raspy and damaged from the radiation for his cancer, about killing the Germans as they slept.
“I had to do it, Debs,” Alvin said.
Nov. 4, 1944, was a Saturday. From three different directions toward the town of Schmidt, German artillery started pounding Cos. I, K and L of the 3rd Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment.
Panzer tanks, machine guns, mortars and howling German infantrymen descended on the American forces, which were outgunned, outmanned and mostly out of options.
K Co., for which Alvin Anderson was a weapons platoon leader, was especially being hit hard by artillery and tank fire.
Its three rifle platoons were stretched across the southern edge of Schmidt and were being asked to cover two of the three axes of advance by German Panzer Regiment 1055.
The German assault seemed to tear Schmidt apart house by house, and the U.S. forces started a disorganized retreat, with hundreds of soldiers heading down a road toward Kommerscheidt, leaving behind their casualties.
The book “Guns at Last Light” notes that about 200 other men stampeded in the wrong direction — southwest into German lines, toward the edge of the Hurtgen Forest.
They had little choice, and Anderson was part of that group, remnants of Cos. K and L.
In the four days to come, the trapped men who attempted to make it through were hunted down by the Germans.
Those who dug in and tried to hold out not only had Germans to deal with, they also were fired on from above by American planes mistaking them for the enemy.
“Our planes were strafing the hell out of the town,” Co. L machine-gunner Victor Ferek recalled in a diary from the war. Ferek would be captured by the Germans after four days.
Ferek said the group that was caught behind German lines fled to a point about 500 yards outside of Schmidt until they met M-gun fire and were told to stop and dig in.
Almost immediately, a Capt. Thomas from Co. K organized a patrol party to probe toward Kommerscheidt to determine if the men had an escape route.
Al Drapeau of Co. L was one of the five or six men Thomas chose for the patrol, but a Lt. Woodward instructed Drapeau to stay with him.
The patrol party left with another soldier as Drapeau’s replacement.
“Seemingly out of nowhere, an American P-47 plane appeared,” Drapeau said in a memoir. “I caught a glimpse of it before seeking some cover. It swooped in, making a pass at us, diving and strafing the area around us with machine gun fire.”
Woodward was hit within 10 feet of where Drapeau had taken cover. Anderson was a similar distance from Woodward, and as he ran up to the lieutenant, he noticed he had been hit twice.
“I can’t forget the last words he ever said,” Anderson recalled later in a letter to his wife, Faye. “He was talking to me, and he said, ‘Andy, give ‘em hell,’ and then he died.”
The assistant squad leader also was dead.
Drapeau would always credit Woodward for saving his life. The patrol that had left without him had been ambushed to the north, and only a couple of the men made it back. Capt. Thomas was not among them.
For almost four days, the soldiers caught behind German lines held their position, waiting for another outfit to break through and help, but it never happened.
Meanwhile, the group had no food because the last of their rations had been handed out Nov. 3. They also possessed little water — 12 helmets of water for 127 men, Ferek said.
“The only food we got was food from German prisoners we captured or killed and that wasn’t very much,” he added.
By 3 p.m. Nov. 8, 1944, the Germans unleashed a heavy mortar barrage on the American position, and their tanks started rolling in, forcing the men to give up.
Ferek said 127 men were taken prisoner and 15 were wounded.
Drapeau, who also was captured, remembered it the same way: “We had no food for four days, and the outlook for rescue looked very bleak.”
Lt. Alvin Anderson and the two sergeants with him had left the surrounded American group two days earlier to look for help.
In the Hurtgen Forest, they melded in with the smoke, darkness and Germans.
“The three men doubted that on 9 November any still survived,” the book “The Siegfried Line Campaign” said. “They probably were right. The 89th Division reported that on 8 November, after the Americans had held out for four days, the Germans captured 133. Presumably, these were the last.”
Anderson’s first priority Nov. 10 became getting word to Faye and heading off any telegram she might receive from the War Department about his being wounded by an artillery shell.
With their first child due in about a month, he didn’t want her to worry. He started his V-mail from a Belgium hospital quite innocently.
“I should write more often,” he said, “but it’s just one of those times, you know, and it was impossible for me to write.”
He then eased into the gist of his letter, that he had trench foot, a diseased condition of the feet resulting from prolonged exposure to wet and cold.
Alvin would not acknowledge he also had been wounded. He explained that his feet were “just swelled like some people’s do when they lose lots of sleep.”
“On my word of honor,” he added, “that’s all that’s wrong.”
Alvin ended the quick letter by saying he didn’t know how long he’d be in the hospital but he wanted to return to his outfit, so he could receive her letters again.
Alvin did not mention his company had been obliterated.
In his Nov. 12 letter, Anderson broke the news to Faye that he had been “slightly wounded.”
“Here is the truth, Darling, and I swear by it,” he said. “On the morning of Nov. 9, about 3 o’clock, I was hit by a fragment from an artillery shell. It hit me on the left leg about halfway from the hip to the knee.
“It just made a red spot. That is all, honest. Not one drop of blood came from it. It was nothing more than if I had burned by finger with a cigarette.”
Alvin’s feet were another story. They were bad. Alvin described it as “immersion foot,” sort of like frostbite.
When he made it back to the American lines, he said he went by the aid station and asked medics to put “some Mercurochrome or something” on his wound.
Meanwhile, a sergeant told him to lie down and rest. Alvin took his boots off, and when he woke up, he couldn’t put them back on because of the swelling.
Now he was in Paris, being readied to be shipped to a hospital in England.
Alvin said he was writing his Nov. 12 letter with an expensive-looking pen he had taken off a German. He complained because it wasn’t writing well. “I guess it is like the German I took it from — sorry as hell,” he said.
Just four days after Alvin had made it through his Hurtgen Forest ordeal, he learned it would be awhile before he could wear shoes again.
“They have on my card that I am eligible for the Purple Heart,” Alvin said. “I’ll feel mighty cheap to take it, if I do get it. But on the other hand I guess I have earned everything they ever give me.”
He felt great after having a shave and brushing his teeth. Alvin also appreciated the simple fact he now could take off his clothes to sleep.
Anderson had returned to England by Nov. 17. The only reminder of his wound was a blue spot about the size of Faye’s thumb on his leg.
His toes were numb, however.
As he recuperated back in England, Anderson kept hearing his and Faye’s favorite songs — “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “I’ll Walk Alone.”
What he wouldn’t do, he said, for a pound of fruitcake and two quarts of milk.
About 30 officers were in the hospital ward with Anderson. He was being allowed only to walk to the bathroom. His feet looked normal, except the dead skin was peeling off and his little toes were black.
Anderson soaked his feet in hot water every day, and the dead skin kept peeling off.
It wasn’t until Nov. 29 that he put on a new pair of shoes and walked around a little bit. He said, “My toes just feel like they’re asleep, you know,”
As he waited for letters from Faye — none had caught up with him yet — Alvin also wrote her mother, asking to make sure Faye wouldn’t worry about him.
By Dec. 10, Anderson had gained back 10 pounds. When he came off the front, his weight was down to 160 pounds.
Alvin was desperate, of course, for any news from his pregnant wife, who was due any day.
Something finally came Dec. 12, a cablegram with three simple words:
“Son Both Fine.”
Thursday: Alvin waits out the end of the war in Paris and takes on a new responsibility with the Army. Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.