cold and snowing Saturday, 9 December 1944, the 592nd Field Artillery
Battalion (FAB), of the 106th Infantry Division, began their move into
the positions of the departing 2d Infantry Division. Battery C of the
592nd (C/592), consisting of four medium 155mm howitzers, would not move
out until the next morning to relieve the 12th FA battalion. The location
was near Saint Vith, an important rail and road center located in Belgium
and due west in the direct vicinity of the German border. It lay southeast
of Liege and of approximately equal distance northeast of Bastogne.
the situation got worse, especially when the temperatures plummeted. When
C/592 went into bivouac on their way to the front lines, the men did not
take the time to set up their tents, or even dig fox holes. They slept
sitting up in the back of their tarpaulin-covered one and a quarter ton
truck, where the tail gate end was open to the elements. Wearing long-johns,
a wool uniform, two pairs of wool socks, combat boots, an overcoat, wool
gloves, and a wool stocking cap under their helmets, it was impossible
to get warm. En route, thoughts of personal survival, loved ones, family,
job, and friends whirled through the minds of every soldier as they sped
through the cold and treacherous Belgian weather. Sitting shoulder to
shoulder, their feet were like blocks of ice and numb.
The 106th Infantry Division, of which the 592nd was a general support battalion of the divisional artillery, was situated astride the old German defensive belt. Known to the Allies as the "Siegfried Line," it was originally intended to stop the French at the beginning of the war in 1940. The area north of the Schnee-Eifel and northeast of St. Vith was a mountainous ridge line and commonly referred to as the Losheim Gap. The gap was considered as the storm door to the west; a 7-mile wide corridor that led from Belgium into Germany. The 14th Cavalry Group (XVIII Airborne Corps) held 5 miles of the Losheim Gap with approximately 900 men but without foxholes or tanks. Tying in with the 14th Cav along a boundary that ran from the village of Kobscheid and back west to Auw were the positions of the 106th Division's 422nd Infantry Regiment. The 106th was also spread thin, over a twenty mile front, so that the remaining two miles of the Losheim Gap were almost desolate. Along the northern edges of Laudesfeld, a village just one mile southwest of Auw and approximately four miles to the German border, C/592 battery sat in a ravine among several farm houses and barns.
The misery caused by dampness and cold was a reality of winter warfare and unescapable. Trench foot was the norm among the troops that claimed many casualties. Roberts was one of the men who contracted this cold weather injury and has wrestled with it ever since. In Laudesfeld, Roberts and the men of his detail took residency in one of the farm houses along with the radio sections. On the second floor they found some beds without linen where they slept. On the first floor there was a small kitchen, empty of furniture, but with a wood burning stove. Everyone in the Detail Section took their turn on guard duty that included tending to the fire. Meals were served at normal hours from the battery kitchen. Everyone ate in shifts to avoid congregating, just in case of an enemy artillery attack. The food, as usual, was cold by the time the men returned to their firing positions.
The larger German counteroffensive, code named Wacht am Rhein, was designed to sever the Allied lines of communication by concentrating three armies along a 85-mile front, crossing the Meuse River between Liege and Namur, bypassing the capital city of Brussels, and recapturing the important logistical port of Antwerp. Here, in the picturesque winter countryside, blanketed by white snow and covered by a gray sky canopy, the German positions in the north had placed the 18th Volksgrenadier Division (VGD) almost directly east of St. Vith that was moving along the Auw-Schoenberg-St. Vith road. Behind the 18th VGD, the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, a detachment of the elite Army Panzergrenadier Division Gross Deutschland, was moving west while holding the right flank of the 18th VGD. The German attack would roll right over the path of C/592, while aid for the beleaguered defenders of St. Vith would not arrive soon enough.
The German attack of numerous artillery calibers came amidst red, green, and white flares that flickered through the early morning darkness. Roberts remembers how, "The sudden impact of shelling was a thing to fill the heart with terror. In the forests, tree bursts showered branches and splinters and sent trunks crashing into the snow." About an hour later, the artillery stopped and all became quiet. It was an eerie quiet, and amazingly, Roberts and the others were served breakfast by 0700. By 0800, he and his FO group had jumped into their two vehicles, along with their bedrolls, K-rations, and carbines, and headed for Roth. Roberts recalls, "I had a gut feeling that morning that all was not quite right, but I could not tell myself why."
The other men took cover on the opposite side of the road. Many were hit as Roberts could hear them yelling in agony. Sensing that his location offered better cover, he yelled to the others to cross over to his side of the road. Noticing movement along the edge of the tree line, he fired at the Germans who were well camouflaged wearing white snow suits. "Anything in the distance that moved, "he recalls, "I shot at. Whether I hit anyone or anything I do not known." One at a time, Lt. Matson and the other men, some of whom had already been wounded, darted across the road to join Roberts. Unfortunately, the last man to cross, Corporal Scudder, was hit in the leg. As the murderous cross-fire continued, Roberts explains,
Only the men that could still raise their arms lifted them to surrender. Quickly, the German soldiers confiscated their weapons and took everything out of their pockets, which included the Waltham wrist watch that Roberts was wearing. He received it from his grandmother as a high school graduation present. Not able to understand what they were saying, the Germans kept screaming at them.
Then, as the fog began to lift, numerous German tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery emerged from the tree line. The sight and noise of squeaking tank tracks and engines was "god awful and deafening." After being marched through the forest and into a clearing, Roberts realized that they were in the middle a German command post. "I saw a mass of German soldiers, officers and equipment. There were tanks, antitank vehicles, machine guns, cannon, and other odd looking vehicles." With German officers barking orders and looking at maps that were laid out on tables and hanging from trees, the German artillery continued to fire from an assortment of weapons. He remembers vividly how, "The stench of fuel, engine exhausts, gun powder, and the loud noise of motors, confined within the forest, was frightening. I made up my mind that the first chance I had to get the hell out of that situation, I would do it."
Not knowing where the German guards were taking them, they continued through the deep snow, carrying their wounded. Roberts remembers how he frantically began trying to answer his own questions about what was in store for him. He was afraid of what they were told back home, that the Germans were not nice to American prisoners. After trying to negotiate over an ice pond while carrying his buddy, Larry Loundon, Roberts fell through the ice and got ice cold water in his boots, so that the trek into the unknown had taken another turn for the worse. Soon there after, the group came upon the small village of Wecherath.
Still at a considerable distance, Roberts could see several farm houses and barns. As they entered the village, luck seemed to be on their side as a passing American tank and a GI on foot scared off the two Germans. In the village they met a Captain from Troop C of the 14th Cav who explained his situation. They were surrounded, and the Germans were pressing against the village from all sides. With twilight hours fast approaching, the Captain decided it was time to make a run for the next village. He gave Roberts four hand grenades, Sgt. Hallberg a cal. 45 pistol, and a rifle to PFC Terrill Rigdon. They all planned to escape in two waves, allowing those who needed medical attention to escape in the first wave led by a tank. The objective was to reach Manderfeld. After a hair-raising dash across an open field, while under constant German small arms fire, they reached the village without incident. Once Roberts got out of the truck, he looked to see how the truck had faired during the get-away, and he recalls, " ... the number of bullet holes in it made it look like Swiss cheese."
Manderfeld was a repeat of Weckerath. They were surrounded again and had to make an escape to the west. The group had dwindled to three men after the wounded had been taken separately out of Weckerath. After asking a Cavalry officer for a compass, Roberts and his three buddies slipped out into the cold night and left Manderfeld. Cold, hungry, and nervous, they moved west along tree lines, hedge rows, and low lying areas and fields. Roberts recalls,
After dawn broke on 17 December, Roberts and his two buddies found an abandoned barn in Eimerscheid where they recuperated and planned their next move. Deprived of sleep and food, the men were not sleepy or hungry. "It is amazing as to what nerves can do for the body," Roberts recalls. "In fact, we were hungry, but food did not even sound good at that moment. All we wanted to do was get the hell out of there and get back to our outfit."
As he looks back now, Roberts is sure that finding his way back to the American lines in one piece can be attributed to the " ... help from the good Lord who gave us the ability to remain reasonably calm, use rationality, and remember our training which helped us use good sense to make the proper decisions on what to do and where to go." He is also quick to add that "We took no unnecessary chances and we certainly did not try to be heroes. We just wanted to get back alive!" The extreme situations that John "Jack" M. Roberts and his buddies endured is only one example of what many other men endured in their own battle for survival. In all the battles, their cause was a common one; to get back home.