Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bill Clark Scrambles to Reach His Unit in the ‘Battle of the Bulge’


For many years after the war Bill was silent about the Ardennes campaign. Perhaps the only person who really knew all of the details was his father, in whom he confided much about his wartime experiences. Although Henry Clark Sr. did tell Bill’s mother, Virgia, about his secret mission into Normandy three days before the drop, Henry took to the grave almost all else Bill told him. Whatever he told his father, Bill undoubtedly asked him to tell no one else. 

Bill’s silence about the Ardennes campaign is typical of his humility and yet again it leaves frustrating unanswered questions concerning his involvement in it. Fortunately, there are enough bread crumbs to follow for this chapter of Bill’s war to piece together the puzzle of what happened to him and how he came to be in the Ardennes offensive. It is a story of deep loyalty,  an indomitable will, and a supreme test of character against daunting odds which could well have cost his life.

It would not be until several decades after the war when Bill was in his seventies, that he talked openly about it. It happened at a family gathering at his aunt Eva’s home where his sister, Doris, two of his brothers, Henry and James (and his wife, Mary) had gathered for a visit. Henry Jr. , James and Mary had recently returned from a trip to Europe. One of the places they had visited was Verdun, France. Henry Clark Jr. had been stationed near there from September, 1944 to May, 1945 with the US Army Air Corps, 47th Liaison Squadron. Bill was stationed nearby with the 82nd Airborne in the vicinity of Reims, France. The close proximity allowed the brothers three precious visits to one another in March, April, and May of 1945. Eva and Henry were making jokes about something that Henry had done in the war, when Doris seized the opportunity and tactfully asked Bill if he was at the Battle of the Bulge. 

Knowing Bill’s characteristic reticence to open up about the war, to everyone's quiet amazement Bill started talking. What he had to say took them by surprise. None of them had heard the story before because when asked about the war he would usually either ignore the questions, change the subject, or state that he didn’t want to discuss it.  It was also more than a little scary to ask him pointed questions. Always the amiable jokester, if you did make the mistake of asking him an unsolicited war question, he would suddenly change character fixing you with a frightening stare from his cold blue eyes. They would mercilessly sear into you, leaving a permanent brand of uttermost embarrassment. Such was the intensity with which they conveyed his profound sorrow, regret and anger undiminished even 50 and more years on. With reactions like this, respecting his privacy on these matters became sacrosanct to the family.

In recounting Bill’s experiences during the Ardennes offensive, notes were used from interviews with his brothers, his sister, and his sister-in-law, together with materials from the “Military Biography of William A. Clark” by Herd L. Bennett, Attorney at Law, January 26, 2000.


Bill’s Ordeal in Reaching the 82nd Airborne’s Frontline Position via Paris - Reims - Liege - Werbomont 

On Leave in Paris

Bill said that when the German offensive began he was on leave in Paris with another younger, green, inexperienced trooper whom he had taken under his wing.  It was a day or so after they arrived in the city that he was approached by MPs while drinking in a bar. One MP physically handed Bill paper orders in an envelope and said they were entrusted to him. Not wanting to lose them, Bill said he stuffed the orders securely into his jacket pocket. The MP told him that his leave and that of his friend was cancelled effective immediately and that they were to return to base. Their was a rendezvous point where trucks would take them back.  The younger trooper was not with Bill at the time.

Already a seasoned veteran of four campaigns, Bill sensed grave danger about this unexpected and apparently comprehensive cancellation of leave. There was a lot of confusion in the air and nobody could tell him what was really going on. Feeling responsible for his younger companion, and knowing they would be in deep trouble if they didn’t get back to base on time, he decided to go get him; then head together to the rendezvous area where the trucks would be waiting.

It took Bill some time to locate his buddy since he wasn’t where he thought he would be. When Bill finally tracked him down he was drunk with a woman in an obscure bordello. It was dark when they ran back to the rendezvous point, arriving just in time to see the trucks moving off. They ran toward them as they drove away, frantically waving their arms and shouting for them to stop, but no one in the convoy saw nor heard them. Their shouts and antics did draw the attention of the MPs at the rendezvous point. Fearful of being caught and thrown in jail for missing the convoy, the pair scampered off into the side streets and alleyways before they could be intercepted and detained. In telling this part of  his story Bill’s voice quavered as the profound despair he felt that night unexpectedly came rushing back.

A large group of around 350 troopers from the 508 PIR were on leave in Paris at the same time as Bill and his buddy. Their experience mirrors Bill’s quite closely. Scheduled to return on Sunday night of December 17, they left their base in Sissonne, France on Friday morning, December 15 in a convoy of trucks bound for Paris arriving in the afternoon. Once they were assigned rooms the troopers avidly began indulging themselves in all that the famous “city of light” had to offer. Their trucks were parked in a large motor pool run by MPs. It was there that the troopers were to assemble on Sunday night for the ride back to base. Source: Nordyke, P., “Put us Down in Hell: The Combat History of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” 2012, pp. 391 – 392.

Unbeknownst to the 508 troopers in the afternoon of Saturday, December 16 the decision had been made to  cancel leave and recall all men back to their stations around Reims. The order spread very quickly. MPs wasted no time and drove through the streets of Paris using loudspeakers calling the men to report back to their units. They scoured bars and whorehouses in an effort to leave no man behind.  The troopers responded by assembling at the MP motor pool throughout the remainder of the afternoon. Four or five of the 508 men were unaccounted for when at 8:00 PM on Saturday, December 16 the trucks drove away reaching base early on Sunday morning. Source: Ibid.

Besides the few missing 508 PIR men, some troopers from the 505 and 504 did not make the truck convoy departure on December 16. In fact it has been recorded that as late as Sunday, December 17, MPs in Paris were still in the process of finding paratroopers who were unaware of the orders to return to base.

Colonel Tucker commander of the 504 PIR was holding a meeting with his senior officers and staff at 11:30 PM on December 17 detailing what was known about the German attack and organizing for the deployment scheduled for 9:00 AM on Monday, December 18. During the meeting one officer, platoon leader Moffatt Burriss, stated that some of his men were still on leave in Paris and that they would not know of the German attack. Colonel Tucker responded:

“As we speak, all military personnel in Paris are being rounded up. Your men should be back by daylight”. Source: Burriss, T., “Strike and Hold: A Memoir of the 82nd Airborne in World War II” 2000, pp. 165 - 167

The motor pool maintained by the MPs in Paris served the whole 82nd Airborne Division and likely other outfits. It was almost certainly the same place that Bill and his friend were running toward as the trucks drove away. But they were not running  toward it on the night of December 16. As the timeline of subsequent events will reveal it was evening of December 17 that they missed the convoy Colonel Tucker referred to in his staff meeting held on the same evening. If they would have made it to the trucks on the night of December 17, they would have been back by daylight of December 18 in time to leave for the front.

Hiding themselves from the prowling MPs on the night of December 17, the pair carefully stole their way unobserved out of Paris in the pre-dawn hours of Monday, December 18. They hoped to hitch a ride back to Reims; a distance of about 145 kilometers or  90 miles. Based on inferences made in documented testimonies it was a drive that took somewhere between 6 – 10 hours in a troop carrier. That Monday was the first of several bitterly cold days and nights the two men would spend scrambling to reach their unit with only their summer uniforms to protect them against the worst Belgian winter in living memory.

The Journey Back to Base

After walking most of the day, they were able to flag down a civilian flat bed truck sometime on December 18. The language barrier proved to be very difficult, but Bill thought the driver communicated that on his way to his destination he would drop them off at Reims. The truck drove for several hours. There being no room in the cab, Bill and his buddy huddled together for warmth on the back of the exposed flatbed. When the truck pulled over to drop them off, they were still outside of Reims. They walked the rest of the way to their base where they found it deserted except for a contingent of guards. Bill said their duty was to guard the base while the 82nd Airborne was deployed.

Before the 504th PIR departed from camp Sissonne the decision was made to leave behind two men from each company as rear echelon. Furthermore kitchen personnel also stayed at the camp initially. Almost certainly, the same decision was made by the other 82nd regiments. Source: Campana, V., “The Operations of the 2nd Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry(82nd Airborne Div) in the German Counter-offensive, 18 December 1944 – 10 January 1945 (Ardennes Campaign) (Personal Experience of a Battalion S-3)” N.D., p. 6. Retrieved from Maneuver Center of Excellence Libraries, MCoE HQ Donovan Research Library, World War II Student Paper Collection.

Map 1: Bill and Friend's Approximate Route from Paris to the 505 PIR Base near Reims, France

The precise time they arrived at the base is not known, but Bill said guards stationed there told them that the Division had moved out earlier that day. The guards probably knew the general location where the 82nd Airborne had been deployed since it was expected that there would be cases of stragglers trying to get from the 82nd bases to their units at the front. 

At first the 82nd had been ordered to Bastogne and the 101st Airborne had been ordered to Werbomont. However, while en route to Bastogne, General Gavin received an order from General Hodges, commander of the 1st US Army, to change the destination to Werbomont. The rationale was that Werbomont was the junction of key roads in the north of the Bulge which if captured would enable the Germans to move with ease in all directions and particularly toward their prime objective of Antwerp via Liege. Source: Ibid. p. 9.

It was logical to divert the 82nd from Bastogne since its men had departed before the 101st and at the time it was the closest of the two divisions to Werbomont. For the 101st, they were ordered to Bastogne. Source: LoFaro G., “The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2011, p. 439.

It is unknown to me whether the men guarding the bases knew of the precise location of the 82nd. It is reasonable to assume that they would have been informed via phone or messenger as soon as possible in order to alert stragglers to the change of deployment area.

The implications of this is that depending on when he arrived in Reims, Bill may or may not have known that he and his friend had to get to Werbomont. If they did know of the redirection to Werbomont, they probably weren’t given a good map of the route. On the night of December 17, working under intense time pressure, maps had been produced of the route to Bastogne by Division G-3 staff and these had been rushed to the Divisional units for use by the truck drivers. Source: Lebenson L., “Surrounded by Heroes: Six Campaigns with Division Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division, 1942 – 1945. 2007, p. 166.

Perhaps there was a wall or desk map left behind showing the route the Division took to get to Bastogne. It may or may not have indicated the route the 82nd used to drive to Werbomont. If there was such a map, late comers could have used it to draw their own rudimentary “mud maps” of the route. There would not have been sufficient copies made for use by individual or small groups of non-ranking stragglers.

For Bill and his friend there were no vehicles left that they could take. All forms of transportation either had been taken by the Division units when they initially departed for the front on the morning of December 18, or were taken by stragglers before Bill and his friend arrived at camp, or were reserved for other uses.

One such straggler was the 18th Airborne Corps commander General Ridgway himself, as well as his staff.

“At 0830 [8:30 AM], Ridgway and the corps personnel (and strays from the 82nd and 101st) took off [from England] in fifty-five IX Troop Carrier planes. In spite of the terrible weather, all planes landed safely in Rheims between 1100 and 1300 [11:00 AM and 1:00 PM]”. Source: Blair C., “Ridgway’s Paratroopers: The American Airborne in World War II” 1956, p. 365.

After arriving at the airfield near Reims, Ridgway and his staff then drove to nearby Epernay about 20 miles south, where the advanced 18th Airborne Corps CP was located. The 82nd Airborne had already departed and Ridgway stayed in Epernay until the last battalion of the 101st was on its way to Bastogne. His staff procured some old sedans (the only transportation available) and set out to Werbomont via Bastogne with thick fog and drizzle obscuring everything. The roads were jammed with heavy traffic going both ways. They arrived in Bastogne and stayed the night. The next morning December 19, Ridgway discovered rumors had spread that the city was surrounded. He wasn’t worried, however. His paratroopers were used to being surrounded. It was how they fought. He departed at first light en route to Werbomont where he was to establish the 18th Airborne Corps CP. The route took him north through Houffalize and Manhay a distance of 40 miles. A sixth sense warned him that the Germans might have taken Houffalize, so he diverted around the town, safely reaching Manhay and then Werbomont. That same morning the German spearhead had taken Houffalize. Source: Blair C., “Ridgway’s Paratroopers: The American Airborne in World War II” 1956, pp. 365-366.

The Long Cold Slog from Reims, France to Liege, Belgium

A point worth noting is that Bill was definitely working under the belief that he had to reach his unit in the 82nd Airborne at the front. If his orders mentioned only that he had to return to base, then he could have stayed there with his friend perhaps helping as rear guards.  Their orders must have included information specifying that they reach their unit. Their unit must have been sent to the front with the rest of the 82nd. To obey the orders they decided to make it on their own.

The next thing Bill said they did was walk in the direction of Liege, Belgium via their base near Reims.  Liege, itself is some 160 miles north of Reims and around 250 miles north of Paris depending on the route taken.

Knowledge of the precise route they took is lost. However, following the route taken by the 82nd to Werbomont could have put them too close to the front to find a ride, or worse taken them behind German lines. At that time it was known that the German offensive was headed west, but no one really knew its strength, how fast it was moving, nor the breadth of the offensive.  For all they knew, the northern parts of the roads used by the 82nd may well have been overrun already, which was indeed the case as reported in General Ridgway’s experience on the morning of December 19.

Indeed some of the northern route was unsafe even before general Ridgway made the journey on December 19, and specifically by the time the last of the 505 PIR convoy had passed through on December 18.

“We [the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion(PFAB)] were three hours behind the head of the of the 505th RCT’s column, bringing up its rear. Battery C, the last unit in a trailing serial, was fired on by German guns at the Houffalize intersection. They were not stopped and suffered no casualties. It was only through the greatest of good luck that the entire 82nd Airborne Division passed the intersection without any serious interference”. Source: McKenzie J., “On Time On Target: The World War II Memoir of a Paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne” 2000, p. 95.

Route to Werbomont Belgium

Map 2: Routes taken by the 82nd Airborne from the Reims Area to Werbomont Belgium (published after the fact) Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report, 29 March 1945

It is unknown how much of the situation Bill knew or suspected. It is known that he decided on travelling to Liege. So Bill’s most probable rationale (considering the possible extent of the German advance) was that the road north out of the large town of Reims gave them a better chance of catching a ride to Liege due to a larger likely comparative volume of traffic. Vehicles heading from Reims to Liege would probably take the more western route to give the advancing Germans a wide birth. If Bill and his friend could get to the city of Liege they would have been in a good position for finding the location of the 82nd and of catching a ride to it.


View Bill's Journey to the Battle of the Bulge in a larger map

Map 3: Bill’s Probable and Approximate Route from the 505 Base near Reims to the 82nd Airborne’s Position at the Front

But traffic heading to Liege proved sparse. Almost all of it was heading in the opposite direction away from the battle zone. The pair slogged their way along roads of snow and ice. Nights were spent in whatever shelter could be found including frozen roadside ditches. With each passing frigid day and sleepless night of plummeting temperatures, they suffered increasingly from exposure and exhaustion. After several days enduring these conditions still only clothed in their summer uniforms, the haggard men almost did not register it when a civilian truck stopped and offered them a ride.  Before their minds could decide what to do, their dumb bodies clambered into its cab. They shivered uncontrollably for hours. Bill said he gathered the truck was bound for some place near Liege. At that stage he did not care where it was headed. The warmth it provided was all consuming.

A long trip later the truck dropped them off in an unknown village somewhere in the vicinity of Liege. Exhausted from their harrowing journey the pair laid up in the village to rest.  Two days later after regaining scant strength they recommenced their journey. Bill could not tell where the village was in relation to the 82nd’s position.  He made several inquires, but no one knew anything. At night he saw flashes in the sky to the east which gave him a bearing on the general direction of the front. So he decided they would start walking  that way. Perhaps he used his rudimentary map if he indeed had one. Once they arrived at the front, or along they way, he hoped they would find an Allied unit of some kind which would point them to, or better yet, take them to the 82nd Airborne. So he and his buddy started walking eastward in the lethal winter conditions.

At some point they flagged down a tank retriever. As luck would have it, the driver told them he was headed to the 82nd’s position at the front. The distance from Liege to Werbomont is about 25 miles. They climbed onto the hull of the vehicle somehow finding the strength to endure the icy wind chill as their slow moving ride lurched toward its destination.

Grant ARV In Italy 1945

Photo 1: A Grant ARV (Armored Recovery Vehicle) AKA Tank Retriever used in 1945 to retrieve damaged vehicles from battle fields Source: Wikipedia Commons

Arrival Worse for Wear at the 82nd Airborne Division’s Position in the Vicinity of Werbomont, Belgium

Bill said it was a very cold day when they finally arrived. He and his buddy were in awful shape. They were still suffering from exposure and their condition was worsening. Even after the rest in the Belgian village, the march to the front and ride on the exterior of the tank retriever had taken their toll. Moreover, Bill said they had eaten very little to no food for a week.

The tank retriever dropped them off somewhere in the 82nd Airborne’s zone of operation. Soon after an officer in a jeep from the 2nd Battalion 505 PIR  was driving by and recognizing Bill, pulled over to talk to him. He listened to the pair’s story while assessing their physical condition. Referring to their generally poor appearance, the officer said he didn’t think they could do much good. Speaking for himself, Bill wryly replied, “I may look bad, but I can still pull a trigger.” Source: Herd L. Bennett, Attorney at Law,“Military Biography of William A. Clark”  January 26, 2000 p. 20.

Taken to a Medical Station for Assessment and Aid, but Which One?

The officer told them to get in the jeep and drove them to a medical station where triage was being performed on wounded personnel. Bill described the building housing the casualties as a “cow barn”. He said it was horrific place filled to overflowing with sick, wounded, dying and dead men. He said there was a lot of blood everywhere and:

“…it looked as if everybody in the 82nd was shot up – decimated”. Source: Herd L. Bennett, Attorney at Law,“Military Biography of William A. Clark”  January 26, 2000 p. 20.

There were two medical units serving the 82nd Airborne in the Battle of the Bulge. One was the organic 307th Airborne Medical Company composed of 15 Officers and 187 Enlisted Men.  The other was Detachment A of the 50th Field Hospital composed of ten officers, six Nurses and 47 Enlisted Men. It was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division before the Ardennes offensive and served as part of the 307th during the battle. Immediately upon arrival the 307th set up a Clearing Station composed of tents one mile east of Werbomont. Source: Author Unknown, 307th Airborne Medical Company: Unit History. Retrieved from

Then on December 26 the Clearing Station was moved to Chevron. There, in a hotel, medical services were provided. The distance from the front to the rear meant that an advanced Collecting Station had to be set up. Source: Ibid.

The location of this advanced Collecting Station is not mentioned in the 307th Unit History and the date it was setup is not clear.

On January 3, the 307th Airborne Medical Company moved the advanced Collecting Station to a “comfortable building” in Haute-Bodeux, which proved adequate size for treating casualties, but was too small to accommodate the Enlisted Men, most of whom had to stay in tents around the facility. Source: Ibid.

I have since found a description of the advanced Collecting Station that closely matches the one Bill gave of the medical station he and his friend were taken to by the 2nd battalion 505 officer. In his memoirs, Spencer Wurst, a 505 trooper from the 2nd Battalion, Company F wrote:

“I had been feeling terrible for three or four days just before Christmas week, as though I had recurrent malaria. Lieutenant Hamula sent me to the [2nd] battalion aid station, where the surgeon diagnosed me as a bad case of bronchitis going into pneumonia. I was confined to a litter and evacuated to a collecting station by a quarter-ton ambulance, a jeep that had litter racks mounted on the sides and back.

It was after dark on Christmas Eve when I arrived at the collecting station, a large, barn-like building housing up to seventy-five litter patients. The whole place looked like a scene from hell. The medical personnel were past the point of exhaustion, working by lanterns amidst terrible moaning and groaning. As we were brought in, the staff checked our emergency medical tags and gave us a quick examination, grouping arriving casualties by the severity of their wounds or illnesses, according to the practice of triage. Those with little or no hope of surviving were low priority, while those who had severe wounds but could be saved by immediate operation were moved to the top of the list.

Horrific pictures of this collecting station remain in my mind to this day. There was little or no heat. People were dying all around me. There were some very badly wounded, and many burn cases from armored outfits where the tanks had caught fire. All of them had bloody clothes. I felt guilty as I lay there, because so many were much worse off than I was. There were also many cases of trench foot, who were maybe as ‘well off’.” Source: Wurst S., & Wurst G. “Descending from the Clouds: A Memoir of Combat in the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division” 2004, p. 230.

Bill’s description of the medical station being in “a cow barn”; his memory of the condition of the patients being sick, wounded, dying and dead; and of the place; there was blood everywhere, and “it looked as if everybody in the 82nd was shot up – decimated” is very similar to that of Spencer Wurst’s “…barn-like building…” with “…People…dying all around me…” and “All of them had bloody clothes…”

The Unit History of the 307th Airborne Medical Company states that there were only four locations serving the 82nd Airborne’s medical needs outside of the individual Battalion Aid Stations. These were: the tent Clearing Station one mile east of Werbomont functioning from December 19 – 26; the Clearing Station run in the hotel in Chevron east of Werbomont functioning from December 26 onwards; an advanced Collecting Station closer to the front in an unknown location established at an unknown time which was then moved on January 3 to Haute-Bodeux.  Source: Author Unknown, 307th Airborne Medical Company: Unit History. Retrieved from

These medical installations minus the first and unknown position of the advanced Collecting Station are plotted in Map 4 below.

The 2nd Battalion 505 officer who gave Bill and his friend the jeep ride would have taken the men to one of the 307th Airborne Medical Company’s facilities since they were the only medical stations in the area. Given the similarity of  Bill’s description of the medical station and that of Spencer Wurst’s Collecting Station, (both as a barn), the only likely station is the advanced Collecting Station of unknown location mentioned in the History of the 307th Airborne Medical Company. It could not have been either of the Clearing Stations near Werbomont, nor Chevron, since they are respectively described as being composed of tents, and a hotel. It could not have been at the “comfortable building” near Haute-Bodeux because that Collecting Station was established on January 3 and Spencer Wurst said he arrived at the barn like Collecting Station on the evening of December 24. 


Map 4: Approximate Locations of the Medical Stations of the 307th Airborne Medical Company in the Battle of the Bulge

Note: Two Clearing Stations and location of the second advanced Collecting Station are displayed. The location of the initial advanced Collecting Station is unknown.

Determining the Date of Bill’s Arrival at the Front

The 307th Airborne Medical Company’s initial advanced Collecting Station in the unknown location must have been in a barn behind the defensive line occupied by the 82nd units on December 24 for Spencer Wurst to have been admitted to it on that night. He said he arrived at the Collecting Station “…after dark on Christmas Eve…”.

Bill and his friend’s arrival at the 82nd must have been several days after December 19 - 20, the dates the 82nd units had first been deployed. Given Bill’s description of the medical facility, their date of arrival must have been at a time when a lot of sick and wounded soldiers were filtering back through the lines.

Bill mentioned that when they arrived he had eaten little or no food for a week. Earlier it was determined that he and his friend started walking from Paris towards Reims on the morning of December 18 and caught a ride later that day before walking again to reach their base. They probably would have arrived at base the afternoon or evening of December 18. After their long journey from Paris, they probably would have eaten at the base before heading to Reims.

So the last definite opportunity to eat something substantial would have been late on December 18 or the morning of December 19 depending on when they departed for Reims.  A week after those dates is either December 24  or 25 and would place them with the 82nd at the front sometime on either of those dates.

As an aside, while it is theoretically possible that they took food with them before they left the base, it is unlikely to have been anything worth mentioning. The 82nd had taken what meager rations were available with it to the front. These rations consisted of very little. Spencer Wurst wrote about the distribution of food on the morning of  December 18 to 505 PIR troopers:

“One day’s worth of K and D rations was all we had. We literally went into the Ardennes with nothing much to eat but candy bars.” Source: Wurst S., & Wurst G. “Descending from the Clouds: A Memoir of Combat in the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division” 2004, p.215 - 216.

Others were a tiny bit more fortunate. James Megallas of the 504 PIR wrote of the hasty preparations for departure his company was making early in the morning of December 18:

“The company area was a beehive of activity. Two days of K rations and two D rations (hard chocolate) sent down from division were distributed.” Source: Megellas, J. “All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe” 2003, p. 182.

Bill and his friend must have arrived at the front in time to see the stream of the casualties arriving at the Collecting Station from the retreat on the night of December 24.  These wounded were not only 82nd men. They were the men from the armored units and infantry who retreated through the 82nd Airborne's line on the night of December 24/25 after fighting in the St. Vith pocket.  It is unknown when the last of these men were processed through the 307th Collecting Station, and the Clearing Station. Movement through the winter conditions was slow, but the retreat was completed by December 25. Given Bill’s description, it is reasonable to conclude that  he and his friend arrived in time to see it. Probably on December 25.  Bill’s description fits with that timeframe and with what Spencer Wurst saw on the night of December 24.

What this means is they they arrived at a time when the forward Collecting Station was located in a barn and when the 2nd, 9th, and remnants of the 1st SS Panzer Divisions were perusing the 82nd and  US Army outfits (retreating from the St. Vith pocket) back to their new lines of defense on December 24 - 25.

The 307th Airborne Medical Company Unit History unfortunately does not provide complete  figures for the casualties during the battle for December, 1944. It states that for December there were 95 cases of exhaustion from combat and 115 trench foot injuries. Source: Author Unknown, 307th Airborne Medical Company: Unit History. Retrieved from

The 82nd Airborne Division after action report for the Battle of the Bulge states that inclusive of December 31, 1944 the battle and non battle casualties for organic and attached units was 1618 enlisted men and 76 officers. These numbers are more than enough to account for what Bill and Spencer Wurst witnessed especially when it is known that many wounded personnel received medical treatment during the retreat on December 24 – 25.

Medical Treatment, Interrogation, and Unit Assignment

Sometime after arriving, Bill and his friend were interrogated to validate their story. Bill produced the paper orders he had stashed in his jacket, and told of their ordeal. They were both cleared of any potential wrong doing for being AWOL. He said that he subsequently volunteered for combat duty and was assigned to a unit. He did not explain to which unit, what happened to his buddy, nor anything about the remainder of his time in the 82nd Airborne’s sector in the Bulge. He only said that after it was over:

“Headquarters took the 82nd out of the front lines. They always took us out first – I guess because they wanted to save us for another slaughter someplace else.” Source: Herd L. Bennett, Attorney at Law,“Military Biography of William A. Clark”  January 26, 2000 p. 21.

He also remembered arriving back at his base near Reims in February, 1945.

Because of their condition upon arrival he and his friend must have received treatment for exposure, were given food, and scrounged around for some warmer clothes.

The unit Bill was assigned to before the Ardennes offensive was launched by the Germans almost certainly was Service Company 505 because at this point in the war that was his parent company when not assigned to temporary duty with the 82nd Parachute Maintenance Company (PMC) Provisional. The exception to this being those cases where he was assigned to combat companies and other units during combat jumps.

He obviously was compelled to reach the 82nd Airborne’s front line position to rejoin his unit at the front. Service Company was  unquestionably at the front as was documented in the last blog post, when on December 22, 40 Service Company troopers from the 505 PIR took their rifles and plugged a hole in the line through which Panzer Grenadiers of the 9th SS Panzer Division had attempted a penetration. The Service Company troopers successfully through them back, halting the attack and closing the breach. The photo below, also provides evidence that Service Company 505 continued to participate by providing for the needs of combat companies deployed on the front lines.

505 Service Company Ardennes1945

Photo 2: Vehicles of and Troopers of Service Company 505th PIR in the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, January 1945 Source: National Archives

However, given the fact that Bill had combat experience he may have been temporarily assigned to a combat company. The ranks of the 82nd were thinned by the fighting and cold and they would soon have to counterattack on January 3, 1945, advancing over a wide front. Every able bodied man with combat experience was precious and most riggers including Bill were seasoned combat veterans.

As was mentioned in the last post on the Battle of the Bulge, when the 82nd Airborne was relieved by the 75th Infantry Division,  the men were sent to towns in Belgium over the period of January 12 - 20 to rest and recover. Some were even able to make trips to France.

“Once we [2nd Battalion 505] had settled in around Chevron, we were told we would rest there for at least two weeks as long as no unusual emergencies arose. During this period commanders were able to provide everyone not under arrest with a three-day pass. The lucky ones went to Paris and Brussels, and a few went to Liege or Spa.” Source: McKenzie J., “On Time On Target: The World War II Memoir of a Paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne” 2000, p. 124. 

During this time, Bill wrote a letter to his sister, dated January 14, 1945. It is a brief letter. He does not talk about his ordeal in reaching his unit. Bill rarely wrote letters home so the purpose of this letter was to convey a simple message that he was okay. Back in the US, the family were aware of the Ardennes offensive and the 82nd Division’s role in it. The letter was his way of informing them that he was still alive.  The return address is also important because it states his unit assignment (at least on January 14, 1945) as Service Company:

Pvt. W. A. Clark 15378297

Det. 1/ Ser. Co. 505 Prcht. Inf.

apo. 467 c/o Post Master. Ny. Ny.

The date of the letter is coincides with the dates that the 82nd was recovering in Belgian and French towns. In one of those towns he rested and recovered before the 82nd was called upon again to eliminate the Bulge by fighting the Germans back to the banks of the Rohr river from January 28 - 31. He then proceeded with the 82nd and fought in the Hurtgen Forest from February 7  - 16, before the Division returned to camps in the Reims area on February 19, 1945.  Source: “Four Stars of Valor: The Combat history of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2006 pp. 378 - 388.

As was his habit, Bill kept souvenirs of various types from the places where he had fought. Bill carried two bibles with him throughout the war. One of larger format dating back to his basic training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia and another of smaller format dated March 17, 1943 from his time in paratrooper training in Fort Benning, Georgia. This Belgian 10 Franc note was found in the larger bible where he had also stashed money from France, and Germany.

Belgian Franc 1 1944-45

Photo 3: A 10 Franc note from the National Bank of Belgium. This side of the note is in French. Source: Author’s Collection

Belgian Fran 2 1944-45

Photo 4: This Opposite side is in Flemish Source: Author’s Collection

The 82nd PMC Riggers on Assignment in England 

At the time Bill was in the Ardennes, his temporary duty unit, the 82nd PMC (Parachute Maintenance Company) Provisional was in England.  They didn’t arrive anywhere near the Ardennes until February 19, 1945 when they reached their new base in France near Sissonne – popularly known as Camp Moaning Meadows.

Here follows a chronology of the actions carried out by the 82nd PMC (Provisional) from October 7, 1944 through to February 19, 1945:

“At about the end of the three weeks, [three weeks after the 17 September jump is October 7] the parachute maintenance men left Nijmegen by truck travelling to Brussels, then by plane on to England with the chutes the 504 combat team had salvaged…

At this time, boxing up of another move was the order of the day.

On Christmas day of all days, a move came up although it wasn’t the expected move. Thirty men moved out on short notice by truck with only a few accessories and found out what the word “cold” meant on that ride to southern England. The remainder of the riggers followed within a few days with the men splitting up into more small sections to work at airfields around Reading. They set up tables and started packing a rush order for equipment chutes for the 1st Allied Airborne Army, and the 490th Airborne Quartermaster Battalion, to resupply outfits that were encircled in the “Bulge”. This rush order consisted of packing 50,000 equipment chutes,; 43,194 of those being packed in 11 days. This number figures to read 35 per man a day, but since all men logically cannot pack at once this figure reveals that from 70 to 100 chutes were packed per table each day.

Returning to Ashwell Camp, a little before the middle of January, the men immediately began transferring the hundreds of boxes of equipment from Cottesmore to Oakham by truck, loading it into box cars. Working in the dampness and cold, they loaded 432 English box cars of equipment in five days.

The detachments next left Aswell Camp behind. The men pulled away from Oakham by train, going to Camp Hursley near Southampton, England. For two weeks they did nothing but suffer from the continuous diet of C rations, and try not to sink in the mud above their ankles. Finally the men sailed across the Channel, then layed over for a few days in Camp Twenty Grand, near Le Harve. Moving out, they traveled for a couple of days on “40 and 8’s”, during which one 508 man was severely injured about the head, finally reaching their destination on the 19th of February 1945. The new camp was four miles south east of Sissone, France, more popularly known as ‘Camp Moaning Meadows’.” Source: Author Unknown, “82nd Airborne Division: 82nd Parachute Maintenance Company” Section 1 Unit History, Date unknown, p. 12.

Despite these facts on the whereabouts of the 82nd Airborne PMC (Provisional), Bill’s service record (analyzed in the Appendix below), and story of his involvement in the events of the Battle of the Bulge are clear evidence that he was not assigned to his rigger unit in England at the time the 82nd Airborne was fighting in the Ardennes campaign.

What was Bill’s Assignment and Why was it on the Continent Instead of in England?

Why was Bill stationed  in Reims when the 82nd PMC (Provisional) was stationed at Ashwell camp in England?

The answer lies in what happened after Operation Market – Garden. The 82nd Airborne’s role in the Rhineland campaign was finished when Canadians relieved the Division on November 10, 1944. Source: “Four Stars of Valor: The Combat history of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2006 p 315.

On November 16 they moved by truck to their new base in camps around  Sissonne and Suippes, near Reims, France. Source: Langdon, A. “Ready: The History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment , 82nd airborne Division, World War II”, 1986 p. 121.

As soon as the troops arrived General Gavin, not believing that the Germans were finished,  began training in earnest. New men were coming into the Division at that time and they needed to be trained. He established a rudimentary jump school to increase the standards of the 82nd’s “airworthiness”, as he put it. Most of the old men who had been in battle in Holland were given furloughs to Paris and England. Source: Booth, T., (1994) “Paratrooper: The life Gen. James M. Gavin” p 243.

As will be explained in a subsequent blog post, two airstrips in the Reims area had been established by the 508th PIR prior to the arrival of the 505 and 504 PIRs. The 508 PIR had also set up a rigging facility south of Sissonne.

The explanation for how he arrived in Reims before the main force of 82nd PMC (Provisional) personnel is that Bill indeed did head back to England with the men from the 82nd PMC (Provisional) on October 7 as per the History of the 82nd PMC. Like most of the 82nd men who had fought in Holland he was given a six day furlough after the fighting was over. He spent his furlough in England in November of 1944 as he stated in the letter he wrote home to his sister dated January 14, 1945. The letter reads:

“I had a six day furlough in England last November. Had a very good time, but I spent a lot of money… A person can have a good time in London but it costs a lot for food etc.” Source: William Clark “Letter to his sister Doris Clark”, January 14, 1945 p. 1

Soon afterward he, and possibly other 505 riggers, were assigned to duty at Reims to pack parachutes, retrieve and repair used parachutes as part of the rudimentary jump school activities that General Gavin had put in place to train the new men arriving into the Division.

It would not have been the first time he was sent ahead or separately from the rest of the 82nd PMC men. He had done so in Northern Africa (as was posted here) where he was involved in shipping a kitchen via C-47 which crashed in the Atlas Mountains and in Northern Ireland (as was posted here) after the Italian campaign was over for the 505 PIR.

These 505 PIR riggers assigned to duty in Reims were probably based at Camp Moaning Meadows near the town of Avaux, France. They were likely assigned to the 505 Service Company.

Sometime after he arrived in Reims, Bill landed a pass to Paris just before the German offensive was launched. The passes to Paris ranged from 2 to 3 days in length and had begun at the end of November right up to the beginning of the Ardennes campaign. Source: Lebenson L., “Surrounded by Heroes: Six Campaigns with Division Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division, 1942 – 1945. 2007, p. 165.

Bill’s pass must have been issued for the weekend of December 16 – 17, 1944. It is interesting to contemplate how different his experience and possibly his chances of survival might have been if he had not been in Paris that weekend. They may well have been improved.

One has to respect the unassailable determination, stout endurance, and loyalty of Bill and his friend in marching most of the 250 miles to the front in that terrible cold. It had nearly killed them. Yet they kept going, never even considering turning back.

It is a testament to the intense regular training General Gavin had designed and led his paratroopers on – not least of which consisted of the 90 plus mile marches in full pack at night. That and growing up in the privations of the Great Depression had made them into hardened supermen by today’s standards. For his part, Bill was no stranger to cold. Until his enlistment, he had lived on the family farm in Ohio where the winters are cold. The day of his funeral, for instance, my phone displayed that the local temperature had fallen to 8 degrees Fahrenheit (a little more than -13 degrees Celsius).


Bill’s Service Record and the Ardennes Campaign

Bill’s Bronze Service Star for the Ardennes Campaign

Bill’s recollections of the Ardennes campaign are reflected in his service record. His Honorable Discharge states under 33. Battles and Campaigns that he received a Bronze Service Star for the Ardennes Campaign and the Belgian fourragère.

A noted in previous posts, photographic evidence was presented in the post Normandy Part 1: Establishing Bill’s Presence in the Invasion which demonstrated that his Honorable Discharge  accurately reflects the number of campaigns in which he said he had participated. Photo 1 of that post shows pinned to his breast an Arrowhead Device as well as one Silver Service Star, in lieu of five Bronze Stars, and one Bronze Service Star. The six campaigns were Sicily; Naples-Foggia; Normandy; Rhineland; Ardennes; and Central Europe. In the first post on Normandy, it was mentioned these are not Bronze Star Medals, which were awarded for valor in combat. They are Bronze Service Stars (sometimes referred to as Bronze Battle Stars). Each one indicates that Bill was physically present in the zone of combat during the time frames of the respective campaigns.

Eligibility for the Ardennes Campaign Bronze Service Star

In the case of the Ardennes, the facts about Bill’s Bronze Service Star can be verified by General Orders 33 War Department 1945 (AKA GO 33 WD45) partly reproduced below:


Top Section Identifying General Order 33 War Department 1945 (AKA GO 33 WD45).

Source: “Maneuver Center of Excellence Libraries Donovan Research Library US Armor Research Library Historical General Orders/Special Orders Collection: General Orders 1945 copy 2” Retrieved from


Page 4 of General Order 33 War Department 1945 (AKA GO 33 WD45)

Source: “Maneuver Center of Excellence Libraries Donovan Research Library US Armor Research Library Historical General Orders/Special Orders Collection: General Orders 1945 copy 2” Retrieved from


Page 4  of GO 33 WD 45 states the conditions for receiving a Bronze Service Star for the Ardennes campaign:

a. Combat zone. - The area forward of the line: Euskircheneupen (inclusive) – Liege (exclusive), east bank of Meuse River to its intersection with the Franco-Belgian border, thence south and east along this border and the southern border of Luxembourg.

b. Time Limitation. – 16 December to 25 January 1945
NOTE - Battle participating credit for the campaign “Germany” will not be accorded during this period for operations in area defined above.

To be eligible for the Bronze Service Star for the ARDENNES Campaign , a soldier had to be present for duty (during the period from 16 December to 25 January 1945) in the combat zone of the areas forward of the “Euskirchen – Eupen” line not including the city of Liege and east of the Meuse river bank from the French-Belgian border southeast to the southern border of Luxembourg. See Map 5 below for the dimensions of the combat zone.


View Ardennes Combat Zone in a larger map

Map 5: Combat Zone for the Ardennes Campaign

As stated  Army Regulation 600–8–22, Paragraph 5-13 c. (concerning Award of Bronze Service Stars to the EAME Campaign Medal in WWII) a Bronze Service Star is authorized when a soldier was assigned to a unit and present for duty with that unit at the time the unit participated in combat; he was under orders in the combat zone; and he was either awarded a combat decoration; or had a certificate from a commanding general that he participated in combat; or he served at a normal post of duty.

Basically, a soldier had to be assigned to a unit which was present in the location of the combat zone when the battle was still occurring to be eligible for the award. Presence in that location after it was liberated and the battle was over would make the soldier ineligible for the Bronze Service Star.

The combat zone in paragraph 12 a of GO 33 WD 45 above included the places east of the Salm River where the men of the 82nd Airborne fought. The Bronze Service Star for Ardennes is proof that Bill was physically present and participated in the 82nd Airborne’s battles in the vicinity of points west of the Salm River which included among others: Werbomont, Basse-Bodeux, Trois Ponts, Fosse, Reharmont, Grand-Halleux, Arbrefontaine, Goronne, and Vielsalm . These place names can be found in Maps 3 and 4 above and in the previous post on the 82nd Airborne in the Battle of the Bulge.

Bill’s Belgian Fourragere

Bill’s honorable discharge record also shows that he received the Belgian fourragere. The citation for it states:

“At the proposal of the Minister of National Defense, we have decreed and we order:

Article 1: The 82d Airborne Division with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment attached is cited twice in the Order of the Day for the Belgian Army and is herewith given the fourragere of 1940, for:

  1. This elite Division which has gone with great elan through the campaigns of Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Holland, and France, has distinguished itself particularly in the Battle of the Ardennes from December 17 to December 31, 1944. Called upon as a reinforcement by the Allied High Command in the evening of the 17th of December, at a time when the Division was in the vicinity of Reims, the Division was able to take up combat positions in the region of Werbomont only 24 hours later and this under very severe climatic conditions. Progressing towards Ambleve and the Salm, the Division opened and maintained a corridor for the elements of four American divisions which were surrounded in the vicinity of St. Vith, thus giving new courage to the engaged units. The Division had prevented the enemy from piercing the north flank of the pocket created by the offensive of von Rundstedt and thus succeeded in saving the city of Liege and its surroundings from a second occupation by the Germans.
  2. After having excelled in defensive warfare at the banks of the Salm and the Ambleve and after having repelled successfully the repeated attacks of the best German shock troops, the 82d Airborne Division with the 508th Parachute Infantry attached, in spite of extreme cold and excessively deep snow, went on the offensive themselves, capturing 2500 German prisoners, including 5 battalion commanders. This fighting was extremely valorous as the organic composition of the division handicapped the unit considerably, not having at their disposal as any other infantry division would have, heavy weapons to support their attack. During 23 days, under most painful and adverse conditions, the veterans of the 82d Airborne Division did not cease to give a wonderful example of courage and heroism, exemplifying their fighting spirit by several remarkably brilliant actions. By its valor, the Division wrote another page in heroic annals of Allied Airborne troops and rendered an important service to Belgium and to the Allied cause by establishing the necessary basis for the new pursuit of the enemy towards the Rhine River.

     Article 2: The Minister of National Defense is herewith ordered to execute the decree.

       For the Regent:


                               signed L. MUNDELEER.”

The Belgian fourragere is a unit award as specified in the post on Foreign Decorations. There is a cord device worn by individual 82nd Airborne members. The award applies to all units of the 82nd Airborne Division. To wear it permanently 82nd Airborne soldiers needed to at least be assigned to a unit in the 82nd airborne Division during the period of from December 17 to December 31, 1944 (see dates in citation 1 above) and from January 1 to 23, 1945 (see the 23 day time frame in citation 2 above). They did not have to be present in the combat zone to be eligible for permanent wear. The 82nd Parachute Maintenance Company (PMC) Provisional was not in Belgium at the time of the Ardennes Campaign. Most of its men were in England at Ashwell camp. Yet they were assigned to the Division and so are authorized to wear it permanently. They are listed as receiving the Belgium fourragere on page 141 of DA Pam 672-1 . Unit Citation and Campaign Participation Credit Register.

Unlike the Dutch Orange lanyard, which states that only members of the 82nd Airborne who fought in the battles around Nijmegen Holland are allowed to wear the award, the Belgium citation is not clear on this.

In any case, as per his Bronze Service Star, Bill was present for duty in the Ardennes combat zone during the period 16 December to 25 January 1945 as stipulated in GO 33 WD 45. Since Bill met the criteria for the Bronze Service Star of the Ardennes campaign, the appearance of the award on his honorable discharge provides evidence that he did participate in the actions recounted in the Belgian decree reproduced above. 

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2013 All Rights Reserved.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The 82nd Airborne in the Battle of the Bulge December 18, 1944 – January 31, 1945

Today is Veteran’s Day November 11, 2013, so I wanted to post an entry to honor the veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division who fought in the Battle of the Bulge; the 69 anniversary of which is just a little over a month away.
What these men endured in that battle is unimaginable for many civilians living in the comfort and security of today’s modern society. Their achievements and losses fighting the  incomprehensible firepower of virtually indestructible German armored tanks and fanatical Nazi SS Panzer Grenadiers, in extreme cold, when the simple act of falling asleep meant death, demands our remembrance.
“Men fought, at times, with only rifles, grenades and knives against German armor. They fought with only light weapons in waist-deep snow, in blizzards, in near zero temperatures and in areas where heavy forestation and the almost total lack of roads presented problems that only men of stout hearts and iron determination could overcome.”
General James M. Gavin 82nd Airborne Division Commander circa February, 1945
Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report
The “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein” in German or “Operation Watch on the Rhine” was the second to last major German counter-offensive envisaged by Hitler in the west. Known as the “Battle of the Bulge’” by English speaking Allies, its objective was to break through the Allied lines in the heavily forested and hilly area of Belgium known as the Ardennes and drive west to recapture the Belgian port of Antwerp, cutting off the four Allied armies stationed in the north from their supply line and their forces fighting in the south. Beyond that, the Germans had no clear objective except to try to sue for a negotiated piece with the Western Allies so that they could put all of their resources into stifling the indomitable Russian advance in the east.

The counter-offensive was planned to surprise the Allies by attacking from their positions on Siegfried Line along the West Wall (the strongly fortified line along Germany’s western border). Using the cover of darkness, the dense forest of the Ardennes, and by maintaining complete radio silence their preparations for the attack went unobserved by air reconnaissance missions. The Germans had secretly moved their best fighting forces into the area for use as their spearhead. Among these were several SS Panzer Divisions: including the 1st, 2nd, 9th, and 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  See Map 1 below for the German planned objective and unit dispositions along the West Wall.

German Counter-Offensive Map 1: Plan of German Offensive with Unit Dispositions (Click on Map 1 to view it in higher resolution)

Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 51. Retrieved from

The German plan had three main axes of attack: The 6th Panzer Army in the north, the 5th Panzer Army in the center, and the 7th German Army in the south. The 6th Panzer Army under Josef “Sepp” Dietrich was given the most important objective of capturing Antwerp. The 5th Panzer Army was assigned to the secondary objective of preventing an Allied attack on the 6th Panzer Army by holding a line from Antwerp, Brussels, Namur, and Dinant. The 7th army was to advance to the Meuse River and defend against attacks on the German left flank in the south. See Map 1 above. Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 75.


Photo 1: Commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 76.

Everything hinged upon the success of the 6th Panzer Army. If it failed to take the bridges over the Ambleve, Salm, Ourthe, and Meuse Rivers, intact and in time the offensive would fail for three reasons. First, the element of surprise would evaporate as the Allies became aware of the German plan by sending in ground forces, blowing key bridges over rivers and, weather permitting, launching air attacks to halt the enemy advance. Second, the 6th Army did not have sufficient fuel for a prolonged offensive and were relying on capture of Allied fuel dumps to maintain their Blitzkrieg attack. Third, the 6th Army was the only force which could conceivably have reached the prime objective of Antwerp. It was composed of all of the SS Panzer Divisions used in the offensive. Refitted and filled to the full with most of the best remaining men and machines, this was the preeminent German force on the Western Front. The 5th and 7th Armies had nowhere near the comparable power.

On December 16 after an early morning artillery barrage, the Germans launched their panzers and shock troops of their spearhead  divisions. The initial panzer attack got off to a poor start. Roads were clogged with the traffic of support troops and infantry units which delayed the armored spearhead by several hours and turned out to be a costly delay. Once they recovered, the Germans fell further behind schedule due to American forces fighting defensive battles. Roads in the area were poor and to make up for lost time, the westward advance had to continue at night further slowing the offensive. Source: Bouwmeester, H. “Beginning of the End: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper”,  2004, pp. 99 - 106

By December 18 , after a fierce battle at Stavelot, the Germans had taken the bridge over the Ambleve River intact. They restarted their main thrust to Antwerp through the so called “Northern Shoulder” of the Bulge as per plan. Their next objective was to capture the Salm River bridges at Trois – Ponts, before moving westward. Source: Bouwmeester, H. “Beginning of the End: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper”,  2004, p. 107

German Attacks 16 to 19 Dec

Map 2: 6th SS Panzer Army Attacks between December 16 – 19, 1944 (Click on Map 2 to view it in higher resolution)

Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 107. Retrieved from

By the December 17 the Allied command was already aware of the offensive and was beginning to formulate a plan of action which would later culminate in sending in reinforcements at key locations along the lines of the German line of advance.

The Role of the US Airborne Divisions

General Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, found himself in temporary command of the 18th Airborne Corps consisting of the 17th, 82nd, and 101st Airborne Divisions. General Ridgway, the commander of the Corps was stranded in England because aircraft were grounded by bad weather. Unable to fly to France he passed his leadership temporarily to Gavin who met with General Courtney Hodges commander of First Army at Spa, Belgium. Source: Booth T. “Paratrooper: The life Gen. James M. Gavin”, 1994 p. 250 - 251.

They studied the situation and correctly concluded that the main German thrust was on the “northern shoulder” of the Bulge. The strategic road juncture at Bastogne also seemed to be a critical German objective if their advance was to continue. Judging by the westward track taken by the main force it appeared that the Germans would advance on Werbomont, west of the Salm River. Based on this assessment, Gavin ordered the 101st Airborne to establish roadblocks at Bastogne and he sent the 82nd Airborne to Werbomont to deploy in that area and stop the 6th Panzer Army before they crossed the Salm River. Source: Gavin, J. “On To Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943- 1946”, 1978 pp. 205 - 206.

Although, at the time it was the general belief that Bastogne as a key road juncture was necessary for the German’s to advance westward, it was in fact not. Later when the lead units of  5th Panzer Army failed to capture it quickly, they merely surrounded it, while the main attack force bypassed it completely and advanced west toward their first major objective of Namur on the Meuse River in accordance with the German battle plans. The main German attack came in the north from the German held territory in the west through Bullingen  in an almost direct line to the Salm River east of Werbomont and nearby points south of the town. It was there along the Salm River salient that the Battle of the Bulge was decided by the swift action of US Army Engineers, units of the, 30th Infantry Division, and later the 3rd and 7th Armored Divisions, and the 82nd Airborne Division. Source: Langdon, A. “Ready: The History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment , 82nd airborne Division, World War II”, 1986 p. 121.

The 101st, and 82nd Airborne were both on leave recuperating and training after the high cost battles in Operation Market-Garden for which they were yet to receive replacements of men, and replenishment of supplies. They were quite a distance away from the front – some 150 miles. Most men who had fought in Holland were given six day furloughs. So at the time of the German offensive many of them had been on leave in Paris or London.  

They mobilized quickly and were sent to the Ardennes to push the Germans back before they could secure the vital bridgeheads which connected the narrow winding roads of the hilly Ardennes forest that led to the Ourthe and Meuse Rivers and then virtually unimpeded to Antwerp. The winter of 1944/45 in the Ardennes was the worst in 40 years. The Americans had not yet issued winter uniforms to the troops. The German attack was so swift and decisive that the men had to be sent to the front in summer uniforms with only their field jackets and long john underwear to protect them from the cold. More would suffer and die from the cold than those killed or wounded from German fire.

The men of the 82nd Airborne were gathered post haste from their places of leave in Paris and London and taken to their bases in the area around Reims, France, the sight of horrific trench warfare in WWI. To the northwest the 504th and 508th PIRs were stationed at camp Sissonne. A few miles to the Southeast the 505th PIR was quartered in the WWI era French barracks at Suippes. The men not on leave or furloughs were rousted hastily before dawn on December 18. They grabbed their gear  and clambered on board troop carriers. Absent were any of the usual pep talks, briefings on battle plans and objectives to be taken. Perhaps the 504th PIR had some remotely similar experience in the hasty preparations for the drop in Salerno. But this was quite a different thing altogether. Officers wore bewildered looks on their faces, and knew little more about the situation that the men did, which was the Germans had launched an offensive in Belgium.

This was pure bedlam. There was a distinct foreboding about this one which made men fearful and uncertain. As Bill would recount later, almost in despair, “You just can’t describe a situation like that – it happens once in a lifetime”. Source: “Military Biography of William A. Clark” Herd L. Bennett, Attorney at Law, January 26, 2000.

The troop carriers set out, on December 18 at 9:00 AM, packed with already cold men headed for a very uncertain future along the roads leading through eastern France, across the Franco-Belgian border of the Meuse River to their final destination, the small town of Werbomont, Belgium. The first troops arrived at 5:30 PM on December 18. The trucks kept bringing in men until 10:00 AM on December 19; 21 hours after the first departures. Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p 589 - 591

See Map 3 below for the approximate routes and place names.

 Map 3: Approximate routes of the 82nd Airborne from its bases around Reims, France to the front lines at Werbomont, Belgium. The Ardennes Campaign Credit Map superimposed in blue.
December 18: The German Spearhead Reaches the Salm River (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
After fighting their way from points east of Bullingen, then Ligneuville and Stavelot, Kampfgruppe Pieper's next target was the vital bridge over the Salm River at Trois-Ponts (Three Bridges). At this point in the Battle of the Bulge it was the key to the German breakthrough.

Before the 82nd Airborne troopers arrived, the only Allied troops present were the engineers from Company C 51st Engineer Combat Battalion. They had arrived on December 17 and set charges on the main bridge over the Salm River with orders to blow it if the Germans tried to cross. It was vital to the German advance since it could carry the massive loads of  heavy armored German panzers and if it was captured, enemy columns would be at the Meuse River within a matter of hours via the highway leading through Werbomont to the west. The main bridge was one of three bridges in the vicinity of the town. There were two others; one over the Ambleve River, and another lesser bridge over the Salm unable to carry heavy German tanks.

Standing against the engineers was “Kampfgruppe Peiper”, a German battle group of the 1st SS Panzer Division under the command of the highly decorated, risk loving 29 year old SS Obersturmbannführer (equivalent to Lt. Colonel in the Wehrmacht) Joachim Peiper.
Kampfgruppe Peiper included the elite 1st SS Panzer Regiment, part of the powerful 1st Waffen SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). The 1st SS was Hitler’s personal bodyguard.  Peiper was a three time veteran of the Russian Front,  and had commanded the 1st SS Panzer Regiment in Normandy. Among his many military honors, he twice received the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military honor for his bravery and leadership in hellish campaigns in the East.  His prowess in battle won him the adoration of Hitler and Nazi Germans alike. Prior to that he was the favorite son of Reichs Fuhrer Himmler, and became the oft quoted poster boy of the Third Reich.
Photo 2: Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper
Source: Wikipedia Commons via Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R65485 / CC-BY-SA. The Bundesarchiv in no way endorses the content of this blog or the use of this photo

Kampfgruppe Peiper was a ferocious war machine consisting of  5,000 SS Panzer Grenadiers, 40 new Mark V Panther tanks, 40 Mark IV Panzer tanks, 15 Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, 42 King Tiger tanks, 5 anti-aircraft half tracks, 12 20mm guns, 25 self propelled 75mm guns, 12 105mm howitzers, six 150mm howitzers, four Russian Nebelwerfers (120mm mortars) , one Wirbelwind (Whirlwind) Flak panzer ( a 4 barreled anti-aircraft gun mounted on a Panzer Mark IV chassis), three Hetzler tank destroyers, and a large number of supply and troop transport carriers of various forms.  Source: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault” 2010 pp. 56 – 57

It was the unit responsible for the atrocity of murdering 80 captured US troops known as the “Malmedy Massacre” near the town of Malmedy, Belgium to the east where Peiper's forces had come. Source: Bouwmeester, H., Beginning of the end: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Jochen Peiper 2000. pp 103 – 105.

Kampfgruppe Piper march Malmedy

Photo 3: Kampfgruppe Peiper Advancing on Malmedy  Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, p. 262.



Photo 4: Scene of the Malmedy Massacre. Source: Wikipedia Commons

After the war Peiper stood trial for the atrocity although he was not present when the massacre occurred and did not order it. He did however, assume responsibility for it since in his view, as commanding officer, he was ultimately accountable for the actions of his men. He was sentenced to death along with about half of his men. But his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Eleven years later he was released. He eventually went to live in Traves, France where he  made a living translating books about the war and where he was discovered because he was using his real name.  In 1976, aged 61, Peiper met his death when unidentified persons shot him in his house before burning it down. 
On Peiper’s left flank was another battle group of the 1st SS Panzer Division, commanded by Max Hansen whom at 36 years was the oldest of the in the 6th Panzer Army battle group commanders. Kampfgruppe  Hansen also had a devastating  strength of about 4,500 men and 750 vehicles. Source: Bouwmeester, H. “Beginning of the End: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper”,  2004, p. 82
Hansen’s forces were composed of the 1st SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment, a tank destroyer battalion of Jagdpanzers, a battalion of self-propelled 105mm artillery, among sundry other vehicles, such as 20mm flak panzers, and armored troop carrying half-tracks mounted with machine guns or 75mm canons.  Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p. 609.
December 18: The Salm River Bridge is Blown…Peiper Drives North looking for Another Bridge (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
Peiper managed to reach the Salm River bridge at Trois-Ponts on the morning of December 18, but Company C 51st Combat Engineers blew it up before his Panzer column could cross. It was not destroyed, but was damaged, rendered incapable of supporting the immense weight and girth of the German heavy tanks and tank destroyers. Under fire from the engineers on the west bank of the Salm, Peiper decided to moved north to try to find another road bridge leading west. Peiper had in fact been given complete freedom in choosing the route of the 6th Panzer Army.
He found an intact bridge at Cheneux, but it wasn’t capable of supporting the heaviest of his tanks. It could, however, support armored vehicles such as half-tracks, and self-propelled guns. He captured the town of Cheneux and fortified it with an anti-aircraft battalion. Then reconnaissance patrols were sent westward to look for good roads and bridges across the La Lienne creek, thereby establishing a route to Werbomont.  Both of these patrols were thwarted. One by engineers who blew up a key bridge at Neufmolin. The other had found another light bridge over La Lienne Creek and was using it to move on and capture Werbomont. This patrol was destroyed by a battalion of the 30th Infantry Division in a fire fight near Habiemont. Source: Gavin, J. “On To Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943- 1946”, 1978 p. 217 - 218. 
December 19: Peiper Captures Stoutmont (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
Peiper knew there were good road bridges to the northwest of Stoutmont, so he advanced on the town, taking it in a fierce fight with the 119th Infantry Regiment supported by tanks.

Photo 5: Men of the 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division taken prisoner by Kampfgruppe Peiper’s men in Stoutmont, Belgium on 19 December 1944 Source: Wikipedia Commons via Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J28619 / Büschel / CC-BY-SA. The Bundesarchiv in no way endorses the content of this blog or the use of this photo.

Also on December 19, Peiper sent a reconnaissance of panther tanks west to the bridge over the Ambleve River at La Lienne, but was forced back in an attack of 119th Infantry supported by tanks. At this point Peiper was becoming increasingly cut off from friendly forces in his rear and Kampfgruppe Hansen to his southwest. He also realized that given the situation, even if he did take the bridge at La Lienne, there was insufficient gasoline to continue his advance. While Peiper waited in the hope of resupply he pulled his forces back to a defensive ring around Stoutmont – Cheneux – La Gleize. Source: United States Army in World War II. European Theater of Operations. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge Cole, H. 1964, pp. 340 - 242.
December 20: The 82nd Airborne Take up Defensive Positions (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
The 82nd Airborne paratrooper’s had deployed in area on December 20. As the men arrived they were placed near key bridges and on a long line  measuring over 25,000 yards in the  surrounding area. Their objectives with the exception of the 504 PIR were initially to secure the bridgeheads over the Salm River and defend the line against the expected advancing Germans.
The 504th PIR goes on the Attack at Cheneux against Kampgruppe Piper (Illustrated in Map 4 below)
The 1st Battalion of the 504 PIR minus Company A was ordered to take Cheneux on December 20. At about noon they attacked Peiper's dug-in forces in and around the town. When the 504s 3rd Battalion was committed to the battle, the German's were surrounded, and had to fight a retreating battle. In the face of vicious hand to hand attacks by the 504 troopers, Peiper’s  remaining men attempted to breakout. They were forced out of the town on the evening of December 21, and moved defend Kampfgruppe Peiper’s positions on the opposite side of the Ambleve River. Source: Beginning of the end: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Jochen Peiper. Bouwmeester, H. 2000 p. 112.
After sustaining heavy losses, 1st Battalion 504 minus Company A and first platoon of Company C 307th Engineer Battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their performance at Cheneux. 
See Map 4 below for the positions of the paratroopers additional details on the movements and engagements of Kampfgruppe Peiper, prior to and after the arrival of the 82nd Airborne. Click on the red lines and place markers for information on the Germans and the blue for information on the American forces.
Map 4: December 18 – 21, 1944. Movements and engagements of Kampfgruppe Peiper. Positions of the 82nd Airborne.
December 21: A Relief Effort Launched to Rescue Trapped Kampfgruppe Peiper (Illustrated in Map 5 below)
At this point, Kampfguppe Piper was cut off, unable to link up with forces in its rear and those on its left and right flanks. On December 21 commander of the 6th Panzer Army, SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Josef Dietrich ordered the commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division (SS-Oberführer Wilhelm Mohnke) to launch a rescue of Kampfguppe Peiper. To give the rescuing forces time to reach him, Peiper pulled his forces back from Stoutmont. He formed a defensive perimeter around the town of La Gleize  called the La Gleize Pocket.
The rescue effort was to be attempted by Kampfgruppe Hansen. Later the awesome might 9th and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions showed promise in reaching Peiper, but only as a byproduct of their primary objectives which respectively, were to break through and outflank the 82nd airborne.
On the evening of December 21 three powerful SS Panzer Divisions (the 1st, 9th and 2nd)were closing in on the Salm River salient.  The 7th Armored Division, the 106th Infantry Division, and other US forces were retreating from the St. Vith pocket to the east. Only the 82nd Airborne stood in the way of  the relief effort  made by Kampfgruppe Hansen that may well have rejuvenated Kampfgruppe Peiper’s advance westward.
Mohnke ordered Hansen to throw his Jagdpanzer tank destroyers against Company E 505 at Trois-Ponts on December 21 in an attempt to capture the damaged bridge there, repair it and resupply Peiper’s men.
At 3:00 AM on December 21, two half-tracks of the 1st SS Panzer Division attacked Company E’s outpost positions on the Salm River’s east bank. One hit a mine, the other was taken out by a bazooka. Later in the morning 1st SS Division Panzer Grenadiers supported by five Jagdpanzers attacked E Co. 505. The paratroopers didn't retreat despite the terrifying onslaught. The attack failed with many SS Grenadiers lying dead in Co. E's foxholes beside the troopers. The Germans gathered for another attack with the addition of half-tracks mounted with 75mm guns and 20mm flak wagons. This time the attack partially broke through and some paratroopers were captured. Eventually, the enemy forced their retreat to the west bank, before moving swiftly on the Trois - Ponts bridge. As soon as the last Company E trooper was back across the river the previously damaged bridge was blown by the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion. This time it was completely destroyed. Source: “Four Stars of Valor: The Combat history of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2006 p. 329 - 331. 
When that attack, failed Hansen attacked Company D’s positions along the Salm River to the south where they were defending a rail and road bridge over the river. Panzer Grenadiers tried to cross the river and were repelled by intense artillery and fire from Company D.
Later in the evening Hansen sent a column of tanks further south to try and cross the bridge at Rochelinval, where Company I 505 PIR was holding defensive positions along the west side of the river, but the bridge was blown by engineers of the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion as soon as the first tank moved towards it. Frustrated the tanks shelled Company I and a tremendous fire fight resulted.
December 22: The Peiper Relief Effort Continues Before Being Abandoned (Illustrated in Map 5 below)
On December 22 Mohnke ordered Hansen to try another attack using Panzer Grenadiers against 40 Service Company troopers of the 505 PIR who were called forward to plug a hole between Company D and Company I positions. Many Service Company troopers including some parachute riggers received their Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) that day for their part in repelling the attack.
By the evening of December 22, the relief effort on the part of the 1st Panzer Division under Hansen was called off.  With the other 1st SS Panzer Division units to Peiper’s rear unable to breakthrough, his Kampfgruppe was now on its own.
December 23: the 9th SS Panzer Division Attack (Illustrated in Map 5 below)
Any hope for Peiper’s men would have had to come from the 9th and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions which were to attack from the west and south, respectively. The 9th Panzer was attempting to breach the 82nd Airborne lines along the Salm River. The 2nd SS Panzer was trying to outflank the 82nd from the south. If either of these forces were successful, then relief may have come to Peiper, even if it was no longer the primary objective.
On the night of December 22, the 9th SS Panzer division which had been attacking westward was now ordered to attack across the Salm River to break through the 82nd Airborne line. Commanded by  SS Oberfuhrer Sylvester Stadler it was an incredibly awesome force of more than 16,000 men spread across two SS Panzer Grenadier regiments, 35 Panther tanks, 28 StuG III tank destroyers, 29 Tiger Mark VI (Tiger I) tanks, 21 Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, 21 Jagdpanther tank destroyers, one artillery regiment, one flak battalion, and sundry support units. Source: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault”   2010 p. 58.
First, they tried to capture the bridge at Grand-Halleux. The attack was initiated by at least a battalion of SS Panzer Grenadiers against Company G 505 PIR in outposts on the east side of the river. The 505 troopers stopped the first attack by infantry before it could reach the bridge. Afterwards Company G was withdrawn from these outposts and the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion blew the bridge  just as the leading SS Panzer Grenadiers were crossing it in their second attack. The Grenadiers launched a futile third attack across the icy river without the bridge. Most were killed by Company G troopers from their positions on the west bank.
Also on December 23 the 9th SS Panzer Division tried another infantry attack supported by tanks, this time south at Petite-Halleux to capture the bridge there.  The 307th Airborne Engineers had again rigged the bridge to explode and waited for the first tank to cross before blowing it. During the night the Panzer grenadiers tried yet another futile attack by wading across the Salm River onto Company C 505 positions. Once again the 505 troopers decimated them. 
They probably thought if they could take the bridgehead, clear the area, another bridge could be built, and the 82nd Airborne line could be broken.
On the same day, the 19th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 9th SS Panzer Division attacked the defending 508th PIR units further south at Vielsalm. The 508th was in a desperate battle to keep the bridges at Vielsalm open to cover the retreating US forces which had been fighting the Germans in the St. Vith pocket to the east. These were the 7th Armored Division, the 106th Infantry Division and other US units. They were forced to fight a rear guard action ahead of the German onslaught in that area and the German 9th SS Panzer Division was hot on their heels.
When the withdrawal of the retreating forces behind the 82nd Airborne lines was complete the railroad bridge and two road bridges at Vielsalm were blown. Again the 9th SS Panzer Division failed to reach its objective of opening up a hole in the 82nd Airborne line. With the bridges blown they were not able to cross over the Salm River.
Retreating US units from the St. Vith pocket were also using the bridge at Salm-Chateau. During the evening of December 23 that bridge too was blown once the last of the friendly forces had safely passed through. Later that night elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division took the town on the east side of the Salm River.
The 2nd SS Panzer Division Attacks the 82nd Airborne’s right flank (Illustrated in Map 5 below)
The 2nd SS Panzer Division under the command of SS Brigadefuhrer Heinz Lammerding was a titanic force of 18,000 men,  spread across two Panzer Grenadier regiments and two full Panzer regiments. The Panzer regiments contained  58 Panther tanks, 28 Mark VI Tiger tanks, 28 StuG III tank destroyers, 20 Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, two artillery regiments, two flak battalions, and various support units. Source: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault”   2010 p. 58.
On December 23 it attacked from the south and overran the 325th GIR holding the Baraque- Fraiture crossroads on the 82nd’s southern flank, endangering the entire 82nd Airborne division. The 2nd SS Panzer’s objective was to outflank the 82nd Airborne. It was not an attack designed to reach Peiper, but it was his last chance, nonetheless.  If it did outflank the 82nd, it could have opened a corridor and reached the stranded yet still powerful Kampfgruppe. But the attack came too late.
At 5:00 PM on December 23, Peiper received a radio message that he would not receive anymore gasoline nor ammunition. He requested permission to breakout. His request was granted with the proviso that he take his vehicles and wounded. There wasn’t sufficient gasoline for that. Again Peiper asked for permission to breakout with only able bodied men. Permission to do so was flatly denied. Infuriated, Peiper blew up the radio and decided to breakout against orders after disabling all vehicles and leaving the wounded behind.
At 2:00 AM on December 24 Peiper starting moving out of the La Gleize pocket with 800 men. They hid during the day and moved at night. During their escape they encountered forces from 3rd Battalion 505 PIR, but eventually crossed the Salm River on December 25 and later that day reached the lead elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division  near the town of Wanne to the east. Source: Bouwmeester, H. “Beginning of the End: The Leadership of SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper”,  2004, p. 114 - 116
For an explanation of these events, click on the red lines and place markers for information on the Germans and the blue for information on the American forces in Map 5 below.

View 82nd Abn - German Positions 21 - 24 December in a larger map

Map 5: Attacks on the 82nd Airborne positions by the 1st SS Panzer Division (top), the 9th SS Panzer Division (center), and 2nd SS Panzer Division (bottom)
December 24: In a First for Division History, the 82nd Airborne Retreats (Illustrated in Map 6 below)
Occupying a very defensible natural river barrier, the 82nd Airborne Division a force with an official strength of 8,520 men was facing off against a vastly superior combined force of  43,000 men and over 1,200 armored fighting and artillery vehicles and pieces! Source 1: LoFaro G., “The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2011, p. 38. Source 2: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault”   2010 pp. 56-58.
This figure is even more staggering since the 82nd was under strength at the time because it had not yet received replacements after the Market-Garden Campaign. Of course the 82nd was augmented by organic and attached artillery batteries as well as attached tank and tank destroyer units. However, these were a poor match given the numbers and defenses of the German armor.
With the incredible, but all too real 2nd SS Panzer Division threatening to outflank and cut off the 82nd Airborne, the situation was precarious. The hilly forested terrain made it difficult for the 2nd and 9th Panzer Division to move and this was an advantage to the lightly armed 82nd Airborne. Their objectives had been to halt the advance of the 6th Army spearhead and then to hold the bridges across the Salm River open long enough for the retreating forces fighting in the St. Vith Pocket to make it safely back behind friendly lines. Once this was achieved, on December 24 British Field Marshal Montgomery – the ranking superior officer, ordered a retreat back to the line in Map 6 below. It was a defensible position being heavily forested and backing up against mountainous terrain with limited road approaches.
Reluctantly the 82nd Airborne followed these controversial orders. The general consensus was that the river running through a narrow gorge, offered the best defense against the powerful German armor.  Dug in on the west bank and ridge lines above it, and with the bridges blown, the paratroopers believed they could have held out indefinitely against infantry attempting to engage them by crossing the frigid Salm River. Source: Langdon, A. “Ready: The History of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment , 82nd airborne Division, World War II”, 1986 p. 111. 
From his perspective, General Gavin was worried about the affect of the retreat on the psyche of the 82nd troopers. Ever since Normandy they had a slogan “No ground gained was ever relinquished”. This withdrawal was to be the first retreat in their entire combat history. Source: Gavin, J. “On To Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943- 1946”, 1978 p. 239. 
The German’s pushed the advantage and pursued their retreat with the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divisions. The 2nd SS Panzer engaged the 82nd until December 28, when it and what was left of the 1st SS Panzer Division were ordered to move south to meet General Patton’s forces attacking in the area of Bastogne. Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p. 655
Some units of the 9th SS Panzer including the 19th Panzer Grenadier Regiment stayed and fought the 82nd. They were joined by the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division. The 9th SS Panzer tried to breakthrough by attacking the 508 and 504 PIR positions, but ultimately failed. These attacks and subsequent patrol actions by the American and German forces led to a significant loss of strength in both the 9th SS Panzer and 62nd Volksgrenadier. Source: LoFaro G., “The Sword of St. Michael: The 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2011, p. 481
Photo 6: Digging in at Bra 504 PIR 3rd Bat. Co. H troopers capture a 19th SS Grenadier who was on a reconnaissance mission. Several other Grenadiers were killed.
Source: Wikipedia Commons
For an explanation of these events, click on the red lines and place markers for information on the Germans and the blue for information on the American forces in Map 6 below.
 Map 6: Attacks on the 82nd Airborne positions by the 62nd Volksgrenadier Division (top), the 9th SS Panzer Division (center), and 2nd SS Panzer Division (bottom)

82nd Airborne Counterattacks (Illustrated in Map 7 below)

The failure of the 9th and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions to breakthrough the 82nd lines marked the end of the German offensive in the northern shoulder of the Bulge.  The German objective now became one of defense.

Opposing the 82nd now was the remnants of the 9th SS Panzer Division and 62nd Volksgrenadier Division which loosely translates to “the people’s assault forces”. The 62nd was composed of the three grenadier regiments and one artillery regiment which had been formed in the Fall of 1944. However, its men consisted of mostly of Polish, Czechoslovakians, and Russians impressed into service. They were both young and old, spoke little to no German and were very poorly trained. Yet they were to fight and defend tenaciously, perhaps because they feared the Germans more than dying fighting the Allies. Some were wanted men by the communities from which they were conscripted. Without hope of survival back home these men willingly fought for the Germans.  Source: Timothy J. “The Ardennes on Fire: The First Day of the German Assault”   2010 pg 60.

The 62nd Volksgrenadier Division was primarily a defensive unit and was charged with blocking the expected advance of the 82nd Airborne from its present positions to those it held prior to retreating from the Salm River area. In this task it was aided by what was left of the 9th SS Panzer Division. Even though the 62nd Volksgrenadier was not of the same quality as the SS Panzer Grenadier regiments, it did make excellent use of the densely forested, hilly terrain blanketed in snow; and towns characterized by well constructed defensible buildings.

Before the 82nd counterattack was launched the 62nd had time to deploy formidable defenses at strategic locations. They fortified buildings in townships. They concealed their defenses well, introducing an element of surprise. Making liberal use of barbed wire barriers, they dug deep trenches reinforced with sandbags where they placed mortars, and  interlocking machine gun emplacements. This strategy, and the presence of armored vehicles, most notably Tiger tanks, which remained from the 9th SS Panzer (presumably they were low on fuel with a limited range), meant that gaining back the ground given up in the retreat was to prove very costly for the units of the 82nd.

On Christmas Day the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB) was attached to the 82nd Airborne. Then on January 1, the independent 517th PIR was attached. Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p 653 – 655.

January 3: The Counterattack Begins (Illustrated in Map 7 below)

The 82nd planned counterattack began on January 3. The Airborne forces consisted of the 504, 505, and 508 PIRs, the 325 and 401st Glider Infantry Regiments (GIRs)  - all of which had been initially deployed over December 18 – 19 and the newly attached 517 PIR and 551 PIB. Even with these additional forces, the Division was under strength.

The initial January 3 attack consisted of the 505 and 517 PIRs, the 325 and 401 GIRs, and the 551st PIB. 

The plan called for the 505 PIR to thrust through the middle with the 325 GIR on the right flank and the 551 PIB as well as the 517 PIR on the left. The latter two units would form the first link in a pivot from the natural barrier the Salm River offered on the Division’s left flank allowing the 505 and 325 to swing out from their starting positions and gain ground rapidly. It was a strategy which worked because on the first day’s fighting the Division overran the 62nd Volksgrenadiers and the 9th SS Panzer’s positions capturing 2,400 prisoners. Source: Gavin, J. “On To Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943- 1946”, 1978 p. 249.

Besides being killed or wounded, many men were debilitated by severe frostbite from advancing through deep snow without overshoes. This was compounded by the frigid temperatures brought on by nightfall. By the dawn of January 4, all of the initial attacking units had encountered fierce enemy resistance in the form of artillery from 88mm guns, mortar and tank fire, as well as machine guns and small arms fire. 

Given these attacks and the cold, January 3 was to be the most costly day in Division history Source: Nordyke, P., “All American All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II” 2005, p 671.

January 4: Day Two of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)

The 505, 325, 551 all expanded on the territory they had gained on the previous day, while the 517 consolidated its position. The 551 suffered high casualties from intense and accurate artillery fire. 2nd Battalion, 505 met very strong resistance because the German forces wanted to hold onto a vital supply route in 505 line of advance. The 504 was moved from divisional reserve forward to fill the line between the 551 and 505.  Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report

January 5: Day Three of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)

The 82nd met with generally favorable results. The 62nd Volksgrenadiers were in retreat in an effort form a solid line due to the heavy losses they sustained especially on January 3. The 505, 504 and 325 made relatively easy gains. The 504 seized the high ground above Petite-Halleux. The 551 found itself engaged again in heavy fighting involving Mark IV tanks, infantry, and 88mm artillery fire. It reached the heights above Rochelinval, their final objective before the Salm River. The 517 threw back a powerful counter-attack in their sector by the enemy now left with nowhere  to go and increasingly feeling cornered at the swing point of the pivoted attack.  Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report

January 6: Day Four of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)

January 6 was used to consolidate the gains made and prepare for the final battle to drive the Germans across to the east bank of the Salm River. The 505 was to attack through the valley leading through Goronne with the final objective of capturing Vielsalm. To achieve that it needed to take the high ground north of  Goronne. To protect the 505 while it advanced across the valley, the high ground on the opposite side of the valley to the south would need to be taken as well. That high ground was known as the Thier-du-Mont. The 508 had taken it earlier and held it until the withdrawal orders came through on December 24. Now the regiment was being brought forward from Division reserve to attack and take it again. Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report

The Decimation of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion

Also on January 6, the 551 was detached from the 517 and assigned to the 504. The 517 was to be placed in Division Reserve except for its 3rd Battalion which stayed on the Salm River line. The 551 had borne the the brunt of the fighting in the 517 sector and was down to 50 percent of their men despite receiving replacements. Now they were needed to lead the attack on Rochelinval on January 7.

Rochelinval was a hold out for one of the last large contingents of the 62nd Volksgrenadiers. It was a strategic objective because it was being used to guard one of the bridges over the Salm River over which the enemy could escape.  Due to its layout and lanes of approach, the town was exquisitely suited for defense. Scouts had determined that around 500 enemy held the town and that they had taken advantage of its natural defensibility and high ground.

With the men of his depleted ranks cold, starved and exhausted, the 551 commander, Lt. Colonel Wood Joerg, knew that the attack would result the destruction of the battalion, so he asked for permission from headquarters for his men to be withdrawn. His plea was denied, and it was never known which individual at headquarters made the controversial decision.

The attack took off after first light without the tank support headquarters had promised. Artillery support before the attack was off target; only one shell landed in the town. Without armor and artillery, the 551 faced a tough fight in the face of the defenders. While they succeeded in eventually taking Rochelinval by 3:00 PM, the fight had all but annihilated the 551st Battalion.


Photo 7: Lt. Colonel Joerg Commander of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion

Source: NARA

Of the 826 men that went into the Ardennes, only 110 came out. Having lost its charismatic leader Lt. Colonel Joerg, and almost all its men either wounded, killed, or frostbitten, the 551 was never reconstituted. The few soldiers that remained were later absorbed into units the 82nd Airborne. Source:  “The Last Battle” published in the Journal “Army” April 2001 pp.  38-39


Photo 8: Men of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion moving up to the 82nd Airborne's position at the front

Source: NARA

It wasn’t until 2001 that the veterans of the 551st got the recognition they deserved when the Battalion was finally awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for the feats and sacrifices its men made in the Ardennes.

The Counterattack Continues without the 551st PIB

South of Rochelinval, the 504 advanced through stiff opposition from the 62nd Volksgranadiers, taking the town of Mont, and Farnieres in the south of their sector as well as consolidating positions along the Salm River.

January 7: Day Five of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)

The 505, advanced and captured the town of Gorrone then established a front line on the Salm River’s west bank north of the town of Rencheux. The 325 GIR had moved forward to occupy Grand Sart. It then took the high ground of Thier-del-Preux. The 508 attacked through the 325 sector to seize the high ground at Thier-du-Mont, though at great cost.  Fifty percent of G Company were killed or wounded in the attack. Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report

January 8: Day Six of the Attack (Illustrated in Map 7 below)

The destruction of the 62nd Volksgrenadiers and what had been left of the 9th SS Panzer Division was complete. The 504 took Petite-Halleux, before advancing across the Salm River to patrol Grand-Halleux. The 505 seized the high ground overlooking the Salm River above Rencheux and on January 9, captured the town. Next they set up road blocks around the Vielsalm bridges.  Third battalion 517 was sent to establish a bridgehead at Grand-Halleux on January 10. Source: 82nd Airborne After Action Report


Map 7: 82nd Airborne Counterattacks January 1 – 10. 
Map 7 Legend
Regiment/Battalion Color Code

505th PIR


504th PIR


325th GIR


508th PIR


517th PIR


551st PIB



For the 82nd the first part of the Battle of the Bulge had ended. On January 10, the 75th Infantry Division relieved them. The survivors of the 505 PIR were moved to the town of Theux Belgium to recover. Throughout the town the citizens welcomed the troopers into their homes. The regiment had lost more than 50 percent of its men. Source: “Four Stars of Valor: The Combat history of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II” Nordyke, P., 2006 p. 377. 

The other 82nd units had suffered similar casualties. They were sent to different towns, where over the period of January 12 – 20 they  rested, refitted, took on replacements. They received training in the use of “panzerfausts” – German single use anti-tank RPGs. General Gavin was convinced that these were the only effective weapon infantry could rely upon against heavy German battle tanks such as the Tiger Mark VI, King Tiger, Panther, Jagdpanther, and Jadgtiger.

The men were getting ready to face the enemy again for the last part of the Ardennes Campaign’s counterattack. This time their objective was to eliminate the remaining “Bulge” by pushing the enemy back to the German border (January 28 – 31).

504 Jan 28

Photo 9: The Battle of the Bulge Continued. Men of the 504th PIR advancing on January 28, 1945 Source: NARA

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2013 All Rights Reserved.