In the spring of 1990, I had decided to take a trip to Europe,
inviting two good friends to join me, Allan Fleming, a near relative
and also a TV producer at our area TV channel, and Pete Derr.
When we arrived in Germany, my friend Gunter said that he had
tried to arrange a meeting between Hans and me, but something
developed and the meeting was canceled. Again, in 1993, I planned
another trip to Europe with Allan Fleming, with the purpose of
video-taping as much of the trip as possible. We would be meeting
in the very same setting where we had met before as enemies,
the village of Scherpenseel, and the irony was that we met in
the house of two of my dear German friends, Martin and Katie
Artz. The Artz house was a house we had taken and occupied for
a short time when Scherpenseel was taken on November 17th. The
room in which we met had had, in 1944, the barrel of a .30 caliber
machine gun sticking out of the front window, facing a ridge
which was still occupied by the Germans.
Meeting Hans was a real joy. He too is the consummate historian.
He came armed with a whole array of documents from every area
of his service as both a Non-Commissioned and a Commissioned
Officer. We sat at the table for about 45 minutes when Hans simply
paused, laid his hand on my arm and very matter of fact-like
said, "Robert, I like you." It was truly the beginning
of a wonderful friendship. With that auspicious beginning, we
spent the remainder of the day touring part of the battlefield,
along with his dear wife. We concluded a beautiful, but exhausting
day with a delightful dinner in a most charming restaurant.
In the early part of 1994, I received a letter from a Josef
Schwagerl who lived near Munich. I was surprised to find an invitation
to a reunion of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division to be held in
Merode, Germany in the Fall of the year. It was a distinct honor;
however, having just been to Europe the previous year, I didn't
think it feasible to incur the expense of another trip so soon.
Sadly, I had to decline the invitation. However, several weeks
later I received a letter from my friend Gunter. In his letter,
was also a translated letter from my good friend, Hans. In his
letter, Hans made the most astonishing offer. He said that if
I would agree to come to the reunion, he would assume all of
the expenses of the trip because he wanted me there. It was an
offer that I could not decline.
In the fall of 1994, Allan and I flew to Europe and met my
friend Hans in Scherpenseel. We then traveled to Merode, the
scene of the reunion. Hans saw to it that our accommodations
were all first class. I must admit that my first experience with
this group of veterans from the 12th Volksgrenadier Division
was rather intimidating. I did not know how the individual German
veterans felt about my presence, in view of the fierce combat
that our two Divisions had participated in. In fact, with all
of the combat experience that my friend Hans had in the fighting
in Europe, he astonished me when he told me that the fighting
in the "Stolberg Corridor," was the fiercest fighting
that he had experienced. I was certain that he would have said
the fighting in Russia was worse, especially in the Demyansk
The Reunion and a Man Named Hess
The first meeting that Allan and I attended was, to say the
least, very interesting. My understanding of the German language
is minimal, but there were bits and pieces that I could understand.
What did not surprise me was the fervor of their singing and,
instead of clapping, the pounding on the table. Across the table
from me was a very friendly and interesting veteran. His name
was Hess. His Regiment had fought opposite the 9th Infantry Division.
He told me about a fierce fight they had with a small patrol
that entered their lines. The man next to him was shot in the
face, and one American fell near him, having also been shot in
the head. After the Americans were driven back, Hess said that
his Company Commander ordered him and another man to go forward
and retrieve the body of the fallen American. When they dragged
the body back to their position, they checked the body for identification
and the personal items found on him. He had a pack of Lucky Strike
cigarettes and a photo of himself with either his wife or girlfriend.
His name was Swenson. The two were then ordered to bury the American
soldier. They dug the grave and buried him and fashioned a cross
from some ammunition boxes with his name identified on the cross.
Hess urged me to try to find the family and tell them that their
family member was treated with great respect. After much searching,
I located the family and wrote a letter to them, telling them
of the experience that this former German soldier had related
to me. I included a statement by the German soldier, Hess. The
response that I and Hess received was cold and without any sense
of gratitude for what this German soldier had done, as well as
for his long concern over the years that Swenson's family might
know how he met his end and was respectfully treated, even in
death. I was deeply offended by the cold display of ingratitude
for what the German soldier had done.
The Memorial Services
There is a Castle in Merode, and once a year the Chapel is
opened to the Division for its Memorial Service. It was a very
moving experience to see our former enemy grieve for their own
dead, and the pain that still remained. This was repeated over
and over again as we visited various memorials and cemeteries.
There was an especially moving tribute held in a forest outside
of the city of Duren. The city had sustained very heavy civilian
casualties because of the numerous bombing raids.
Allan and I were with Hans as he visited several cemeteries
where his very own men, from the company he commanded, were buried.
To see Hans go through that very difficult personal grief was,
for us, also a painful experience. Knowing him, he was probably
wondering whether he had done everything that he could have done
as a Company Commander, to save the lives of his men.
The Return to Scherpenseel
It was indeed an honor to have been invited to the12th VG
Division Reunion and to share the common experience of soldiers:
the pride of accomplishment and the pain and grief for those
of our comrades who were lost. Those feelings are not only the
prerogatives of the victor, but also of the vanquished.
When Allan and I joined Hans in our trip back to Scherpenseel,
it was with the purpose of video-taping as much as we could of
the recollections that Hans had of his participation in the heavy
fighting that took place in the infamous "Stolberg Corridor."
One of the first places we visited was the building in Hastenrath
that served as his Command Post. It happened to be the cellar
of the priest's home, adjacent to the church in the village.
Hans told of the heavy shelling by the American artillery and
how he would have to return to Regt. Hqts for his instructions
and orders, the whole time running the gauntlet of artillery
fire. His travels back to Regiment were by bicycle, and he showed
us the place where he parked his bike before making a dash for
Commanding an Anti-Tank Company gave Hans a large area of
responsibility in forming an anti-tank defense against the offensive
that the Germans knew was coming. He drove us around the perimeter
of his defense responsibility, and it was considerable. Not only
did he position and control the 7.5 guns, but also the Rocket
Projectors as well as the one-man Panzerfaust.
When the 3rd Armored, along with the 1st and 9th Infantry
Divisions, crossed the German border south of Aachen, both the
German and American forces were exhausted from heavy casualties
and worn out tanks and other vehicles, There was no question
that it would take considerable time until our forces were reconstituted
and brought up to strength. A strong American offensive, the
Germans knew, was inevitable. The fact that it would take two
months to make it possible, gave the Germans that much time to
prepare for the coming attack, and when you give the Germans
that much time to prepare, you are going to pay a terrible price.
We learned that painful lesson in the Normandy hedgerows where
we met the German defensive skill. And even though the forces
under the command of 1st Lt. Hans Zeplien were severely depleted,
not only in men, but also equipment, the defensive lessons learned
on the Russian front would be to the detriment of our own 3rd
Armored Division tankers.
Hans Prepares for the Attack
Before the November 16th attack, Hans would make the rounds
at night to visit every man and every position so that in two
nights he would cover his entire defensive position. There were
areas where the ground was marshy and the foxholes would soon
fill with water. Wood was brought forward to place in the bottom
of the holes to give some comfort to the men occupying those
positions. October was an unusually rainy month, to which our
unit could attest. This did not bode well for the coming attack,
especially with the difficulty of negotiating soft ground on
the narrow tracks of our Sherman tanks.
At the very same time, our own company was positioned within
yards of the German positions; in fact, we were so close that
we could hear the horse and wagon that would bring the soldiers
their one hot meal every evening. We could actually hear the
sound of the mess kits as the German soldiers ate. The same could
not be said about our own unit. No hot meals were ever brought
forward to us.
When the attack was launched on November 16, preceded by a
horrific artillery barrage, the Germans were well prepared to
meet it. Belton Cooper, in his book "Death Traps,"
gives us the gory details of our tank losses, just incredible
losses of men and material. Another excellent account of the
attack comes from Lt. Earle, who commanded the lead Sherman tank.
Earle's account of his experience inside the tank is probably
one of the most graphic descriptions of what it is like to sustain
hits from anti-tank guns.
Needless to say, the attack did not achieve the breakthrough
that was anticipated.
Hans Zeplien and Oliver Wiggs
In the Fall of 1994, as Hans and I toured the battlefield
we came to a point that overlooked the large sugar beet field
that proved a real killing ground for the German anti-tank forces.
Hans pointed to the distant corner of the large field where the
villages of Scherpenseel and Hastenrath meet. He then told me
the most astonishing story. He said that after dark, on the night
of the 16th, he took another man with him to check out the remaining
positions. He said that suddenly, in the darkness, he heard the
sound of tank engines coming to life. He could tell by the blue
flames of the exhausts that there were three tanks that began
a run across the large field, heading for the village of Werth.
He and the other man immediately took out after the three tanks,
Hans carrying a Panzerfaust. However, Hans said that the tanks
began moving too fast, and they were unable to catch up in order
to fire the Panzerfaust.
Some years earlier I had met a man who lived in the same town
as I. His name was Oliver Wiggs. I had seen his name mentioned
in our Division publication and saw that he lived in Emmaus.
We had great visits together. In his later years he and his wife
moved to a retirement home. After his dear wife died and he was
no longer able to drive, I would take him on shopping excursions.
He was always a natty dresser and a lover of fine tobacco. During
one of our visits together he began talking about his experiences
in the war, and the November 16 attack came up. Oliver was in
I Co. 33rd Regt., the same company as Lt. Earle. He spoke of
the heavy casualties that they had sustained and said that their
attack across the large sugar beet field ended at the juncture
of the villages of Scherpenseel and Hastenrath and were surrounded
by German Infantry. Wiggs left the tank to fight more effectively,
in the course of which he won the Silver Star for gallantry.
There were only three tanks that survived that fateful attack.
Since the three tanks were low in ammunition and without infantry
support, the three tank commanders decided to make a run across
the large field for the village of Werth.
Can you imagine my complete surprise when Hans fully confirmed
the story of Oliver Wiggs. I was fortunate to get these two men
together, so when Oliver and I would finish a shopping tour we
would end up in a Red Lobster restaurant where we would end the
meal with a toast to Hans. We would have a waiter or waitress
photograph the toast, and I would mail a copy to Hans. In one
of the last letters that I received from Hans before Oliver died,
Hans said that I should tell Oliver that the next time he wouldn't
chase him with a Panzerfaust; instead he would chase him with
a bouquet of flowers. What a tribute to the beautiful spirit
between these two former enemies.
Hans and Lynn Haufschild
In the late eighties, I received a letter from a man by the
name of Lynn Haufschild, from Madison, South Dakota. He had read
an article that I had written for our Division publication, concerning
the fighting around Werth, Scherpenseel and Hastenrath. He told
me that his brother William was killed on November 17 in Hastenrath.
He also told me that his brother was a member of "F"
Co. of the 33rd Regt. He asked me if I could help find out where
and how his brother was killed. During my visit to Scherpenseel
with Hans, I placed the issue before him, and he determined where
Lynn's brother's tank must have been and that, in all probability,
his brother was killed outside of his tank by German Infantry.
There is a school house at the juncture of those two villages,
and it was used by the Germans as an excellent observation post.
At the time of the fighting there, we were amazed at the accuracy
of their artillery and mortar fire, until we realized the perfect
picture that the observation post gave them. We ascertained that
William Hausfchild died about a hundred yards in front of the
I put Lynn Haufschild in touch with my friend Hans and another
good friendship developed. They had good communications, including
telephone calls. When Lynn Haufschild and his wife celebrated
their 50th wedding anniversary, Hans sent them a congratulatory
card with a generous sum of money enclosed. This is another example
of what a great man Hans is. To me, his kindness and generosity
are without parallel. That is why I am honored to call him, my
good comrade Hans.