The rains came early to Germany that autumn of 1944 forming
pools of water on the saturated landscape and turning battlefields
into seas of mud. For days without end it rained. It was as if
the Great God of Weather had siphoned off the North Sea and was
pouring it back on the battlefields with punishing ferocity.
When tanks and half-tracks of the Third Armored Division began
belly rubbing in the soft fields near Aachen, the assault into
Hitler's homeland would now have to wait for the ground to firm
up. No longer could the division run in multi-pronged attacks
as it had across France and Belgium that summer.
In a way it was perhaps just as well. The tanks and infantry
were in terrible shape. Most Shermans could move only in low
gear: The First Infantry Division had lost frightening-numbers
of its original strength. If VII Corps' tank/infantry punch was
to regain normal strength, a pause for a few days was badly needed.
Day after day the rain continued. It was wet and cold and
miserable. Wallowing in the mud near their stalled armor, many
soldiers found shelter under canopies tied to their vehicles,
or to trees black with rain. Others built crude shacks. Everyone
had come to believe that there wouldn't be the slightest chance
of getting home for Christmas. End the war in forty-four
faded like a dream gone sour.
The moratorium, however, was short-lived. First Army commander
General Courtney Hodges ordered the capture of nearby Aachen
a vital crossroads city on the Ardennes' northern slopes.
Once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the site of 32
coronations, not only would Aachen be the first German city to
fall to the Allies, but its capture would also serve as a formidable,
psychological blow to Nazi morale.
After surrender negotiations with the 10,000 defenders of
the city had failed, General Hodges gave fair warning to the
civilian population to evacuate while at the same time ordering
the positioning of three hundred heavy guns (mostly 105-mm howitzers
and 155-mm Long Toms) to surround the venerable city.
Our White M-15 half-track was deployed on the outer ring with
the artillery. Our assignment was to protect the artillery from
aerial and ground attacks while they pounded Aachen around the
Our armament was an automatic 37-mm cannon flanked by twin
.50-caliber machine guns on a rotating turret. We had a crew
of seven and great firepower.
After plowing the half-track into a muddy field that offered
a good field of fire, we camouflaged the vehicles' sharp-lines
with brush. Our next priority was to build a shack to get out
of the cold, penetrating rain.
-- A HOME OF OUR OWN --
In a nearby deserted farm we found a wagon and confiscated
four large doors from the barn's hinges and piled them in the
wagon. We also confiscated boards, tools, poles, nails, a wide
saw belt and other assorted building materials we found in the
barn and, with Herculean effort, we pulled and pushed the loaded
wagon back to our gun site. Using the barn doors for walls, we
quickly constructed a shack complete with a window and a narrow
door. For a roof we used a waterproof tarpaulin and ran a stovepipe
through a hole cut at its center. An open-ended 25-gallon oil
drum, which we laid on rocks in the center of the shack, served
as a stove. With the poles and cut-up saw belt, we built seven
over-and-under bunks along the walls.
Outside, we dug seven slit trenches close to the shack, which
quickly filled with water. Finally, we laid a walkway of planks
from the shack to the half-track, mired in mud 50-feet from the
After battling the Nazis across France and Belgium that summer
- often without sleep for several days - we finally had a home
of our own where we could dry our uniforms and enjoy those basic
creature comforts that our new lifestyle promised. But that was
before the bombardment began on 11 October 1944.
-- THE BOMBARDMENT --
Four 155-mm guns were positioned along a mud road behind our
shack. The barrel of one Long Tom hung like a slanted telephone
pole close to our roof. Each time it exploded - every few minutes
- our tarpaulin-roof fluttered violently from the concussion,
and shelves fell from our shack walls. Sleep, on our saw belt
cots on a prolonged basis, was not possible.
In the streets of the beleaguered city, we learned on a daily
basis that the battle was fierce and full-scaled. Elements of
the 1st and 30th Infantry Divisions were attacking toward the
center of the city in a pincer movement with high casualties.
Tanks from our 3rd Armored Division supported the Big Red One.
Simultaneously, in the murky skies above Aachen, squadrons
of P-47 Thunderbolts, in precision formations, were dive-bombing
with 500 and 1,000 pound bombs, after which they went for altitude,
and then strafed well-entrenched enemy positions with devastating
results. Aachen was taking a terrible pounding,
After two days of the bombardment, the explosions of the big
guns near our shack became a test of nerves and dispositions.
Only the dead could enjoy the luxury of sleep.
Over my cot I placed a small board on two spikes driven into
the barn door wall. On the shelf I placed a wooden box of cigars.
While lying on the cot I noticed that each time the Long Tom
exploded, the shelf would jump on the spikes and move away from
the wall. After several explosions the shelf and cigar box would
fall to my chest. I would then place the shelf and cigar box
back on the spikes and start the count anew. Consistently, after
eight explosions the shelf would fall.
-- OUR CAPTAIN FALTERS --
One Long Tom was set on the lawn of our captain's CP, a two-story
stone building along the mud road behind our shack. Each time
the Long Tom exploded, several red roof tiles would slide down
and crash to the ground.
On the 6th day of the barrage, half the tiles on the captain's
CP roof had fallen off, exposing the roof rafters. On the 8th
day, three-quarters of the tiles were gone. On the afternoon
of the 9th day, we saw the captain walking slowly down the road
in the rain, firing his pistol over his head as he walked. An
officer rushed out of the CP, grabbed him, and took him back
The constant firing of the big gun on his front lawn had pushed
him over the edge. The following morning he was evacuated. We
never saw him again.
Most soldiers in the company, however, didn't consider the
captain's evacuation as a serious setback to the armies' quest
to capture Aachen. With the exception of those inevitable few
who grovel at the Emperor's feet for special favors, most thought
of the captain as a serious slip in the officer selection process.
Ill-tempered and diligently retaliatory, he never exactly earned
the stature of the storied combat leader whom soldiers would
follow into battle over glowing embers.
Early on, he indicted himself as an officer who misused authority.
During basic training, as a way to impress squad leaders on methods
of achieving obedience, he explained his grandfather was once
a slave owner: "Granddaddy," he said, "found the
best way to achieve obedience from underlings was to beat them."
"My God, Captain," we thought at the time, "let
go of it. This is the mid-twentieth century."
Later, at Camp Shanks, an exit-camp for ETO-bound units, the
captain ordered squad leaders to form two lines as a way to discipline
a soldier (for some infraction) by whacking him with their ammo
belts - that had heavy brass buckles - as he walked between lines.
Even though the squad leaders only pretended to administer punishment,
the captain's point was made.
Shortly prior to the Normandy Invasion, Moose Canfield was
still the only soldier in the company who owned a coveted, personal
side arm - it was a Colt .45 that his father had carried through
World War I.
Moose, a big, likeable, slow-talking mountain-man from New
Hampshire, believed that some vital pieces of military equipment
- such as a soldier's side arm - were meant to be of singular
possession and not to be loaned.
When General Omar Bradley was scheduled to swing by our compound
on an inspection tour, the captain asked to borrow Moose's Colt.
When Moose refused, he quickly rose to the top of the captain's
retaliatory list and, thereafter, experienced mean-spirited acts
of discipline. So when the captain became an evacuee during the
bombardment of Aachen, no one rushed forward to start a collection
as a going away gift of fond remembrance.
-- HUMOR, A STRESS REDUCER --
To counterbalance the strain of the bombardment, the inclement
weather, and the bad taste left by our captain's uninspiring
performance as a combat leader, two members of our seven man
crew unwittingly supplied many humorous diversions, which clearly
defined humor as an effective therapeutic shield to ease stress
in combat situations.
John Edgecomb, our driver, was the unrivaled pessimist of
the entire company, while Billy Cavanaugh, our gun loader, was
the preeminent optimist.
If there is any truth to the thought that mortal combat brings
out true character traits, then that theory played out accurately
with Edgecomb and Cavanaugh.
At Normandy when we were bogged down in the imprisoning hedgerows
for days on end, Edgecomb would often announce: "This is
the day we'll all be killed," whereas Cavanaugh would counter
and assure the crew: "This is the day we'll kill a hundred
Krauts and break out of these goddamn hedgerows."
Edgecomb's woebegone attitude became evident even before Normandy.
When we shipped out of New York, I climbed the gangplank of the
Queen Mary behind him, each weighted down with duffle bag and
rifle. I remember him commenting, "I know I'm going to be
"Not on this boat," I reassured him. "This
ride will be as smooth as taking a walk on a long wharf. She
can cruise at 33-knots." But Edgecomb wanted to be
The next morning he moaned from his cot: "I'm so seasick
I fear I might die." But when I walked him topside for fresh
air, we noticed the great ship was still tied to the pier.
Because the personalities of the two men were hopelessly polarized,
as we advanced toward the German border, the incidents of foxhole
humor that flew like sparks between these two opposites were
rich sources of diversion from the daily rigors of combat.
During the division's attack across France and Belgium that
summer of 1944, we stopped occasionally to wait for the Red Ball
Express to catch up with fuel, ammunition, and supplies. To utilize
these stops, the men wrote letters, washed clothes in gasoline,
catnapped, or repaired battle equipment.
Edgecomb frequently sat cross-legged in the grass and played
solitaire. Whenever he chanced to leave his game for some errand,
Cavanaugh, always alert, would seize the moment and manage to
pour gasoline under his cards, and then pour a fuse away from
the flash point.
After Edgecomb returned to his game, he would see a thin line
of fire rushing toward him, with only scant seconds to jump away
before his cards blew up in flames. Then the chase would begin,
with Edgecomb exhorting he was going to kill the SOB.
As the bombardment wore on, Cavanaugh, an early riser, would
enter the shack whistling merrily - as Pollyannas do - and throw
a few sticks and a can of gas into our oil drum stove, the door
being two feet from Edgecomb's pillow. He would then toss in
a match and watch with delight as the stove belched Edgecomb
awake, scotching his hair and setting his GI blanket afire. Then,
of course, came the chase across the mud-field. But Edgecomb
could never get his boots on quickly enough to catch his tormentor.
When the siege of Aachen ended, Edgecomb's blanket was about
Each morning during the siege, squadrons of P-47 Thunderbolts
would appear over the gray skies of Aachen to begin dive-bombing
and then strafing. In perfect symmetrical patterns, the planes
would roll on their wings and dive in tandem at over four hundred
mph, their eight machine guns raking Nazi defenses. After roaring
for altitude, they would strike again and again. For those who
were witness, it was a happening that remains fixed in memory.
Each morning, standing like a statue in the mud, Edgecomb became
mesmerized by the spectacular aerial show. Hour after hour he
watched the Thunderbolts dive.
One afternoon Cavanaugh approached him and, as if attempting
to improve frayed relations, he began a congenial conversation
about the Thunderbolts, but as he talked he was circling Edgecomb
and pouring gasoline from his helmet, which he held behind his
back. Edgecomb soon found himself entrapped in a ring of fire,
and once more the chase across the mud-field would begin.
-- TEN SECONDS TO LIVE --
Near the end of the bombardment, Cavanaugh entered the shack
whistling merrily and casually juggling a hand grenade from one
hand to the other. As expected, Edgecomb was the first to react.
"Put that away you dumb bastard. You'll kill us all."
"You're such a chicken," Cavanaugh responded. "These
things are perfectly safe so long as you hold the handle down.
See? You can even pull the pin as long as you hold the handle
But when Cavanaugh pulled the pin to demonstrate, the crew
spoke in single voice, "PUT THE PIN BACK IN, CAVANAUGH!"
We also moved closer to the narrow door. Maybe the tension of
the bombardment was getting to him.
"You're all a flock of chickens cluck, cluck, cluck,"
but as he spoke he suddenly began coughing convulsively and as
he reached for his handkerchief, we saw the grenade free-fall
to the shack floor. We had ten seconds to live.
Edgecomb and our gunner got to the narrow door first and became
stuck. When the rest of the crew instinctively pushed them through,
the wall of the shack fell flat in the mud pulling the tarpaulin
roof and stove pipe along with it. Scrambling over the flattened
mess, we dove into our slit trenches filled with water and waited
for the explosion . . . and we waited. There wasn't any explosion.
We only heard Cavanaugh, buried under the tarp, laughing hysterically.
We were quick to understand that he had tricked us with a dud
Thoroughly soaked, laying flat in my water-filled trench,
my initial thought was maybe Edgecomb is right. Maybe Cavanaugh
is a serious detriment to the welfare of the crew.
But in an inexplicable reaction-swing, I began laughing. No
matter how hard I tried, I could not stop laughing.
In the next hole I heard Edgecomb gurgle: "If the son
of a bitch isn't transferred off this crew, I swear on my mother's
Bible I'll kill him."
After hearing that commitment, I knew there wasn't the slightest
chance of convincing Edgecomb that, in Cavanaugh, we possibly
had a genius of humor among us. We climbed out of our holes and
rebuilt the shack.
-- THE CASUALTY --
After 10-days the siege of Aachen was reaching its final stages,
but the rain persisted, as did the firing of the big guns. For
ten-days no one slept hardly at all. We fervently hoped the Germans
would come to their senses and wave a white bed sheet of surrender
so everyone could get some sleep.
Even though sleepless, our gun crew survived the siege nicely,
even Edgecomb, doleful as he was, struggled through each day,
finding a peculiar source of strength in his negativity. No one
on the crew came close to cracking, but Cavanaugh's dog, however,
began showing troubling reactions from the strain of the bombardment
and the damp weather. Cavanaugh had picked up the little stray
that summer in France. It was love at first sight--a perfect
match. The small, brown mutt stood guard duty with him, even
napped close to him on their saw belt cot. They were inseparable.
But on the morning of the 9th day of the bombardment, the
little dog began to tremble uncontrollably and foam at the mouth.
On the 10th day his hair began dropping out.
Edgecomb complained bitterly to Cavanaugh: "Why don't
you shoot the goddamn dog before we all get sick?"
That same afternoon the dog began to convulse and vomit. I
asked Cavanaugh if he didn't think it was time to put the little
fellow to sleep? He said he'd think about it.
Darkness fell and the rain drummed heavily on the canvas roof.
Late in the evening Cavanaugh suddenly rose from his cot and,
without speaking, put on his poncho and took a Thompson submachine
gun off its peg and slung it over his shoulder. He went to his
cot and picked up his little sick friend and hugged him tenderly
for long moments. Finally, he tucked him under his poncho and
stepped through the narrow door into the downpour.
Soon we heard a short burst from the Thompson. Cavanaugh came
back in the shack and went over to Edgecomb, sitting on his cot.
It was the first time any of us had seen him so grievously solemn:
"Edgecomb," he said, touching the Thompson. "If
I hear you even mention my dog again, I'll turn this on you."
But he looped the Thompson back on the peg and went to his
cot and lay down. The moment was heavily charged, and we wondered
if Cavanaugh was merely venting. I had a feeling he was; but
Edgecomb wisely chose not to challenge the moment and retreated
to the shadows of his cot.
The episode did nothing to bridge an understanding between
the two antagonists. Even though they remained polarized for
the remainder of the war, the crew always functioned as a well-lubricated
machine during moments of action.
On 21 October after 11-days, the Germans finally surrendered.
The Thunderbolts left the area; the artillery bombardment ceased.
Aachen, the first German city to fall to the Allies, had taken
a terrible pounding. Eighty percent of the houses were destroyed,
as were seventy churches and fifty schools.
The rains continued well into November that year.
|Note: With the exception of historical
personalities, all names have been changed to protect the privacy
Copyright © 2004 by Dick