Five months after D-day, both sides were exhausted. The Germans retreated from France to prepared positions inside the Siegfried Line. The Americans and British waited for supplies. The lines were fixed. November 1944 was a battle with echoes of World War 1. We huddled in holes in the ground to escape machine gun fire from concrete bunkers, and heavy artillery barrages.
Several miles behind the front, high-powered searchlights banked their beams into low clouds. The reflected light spread for miles through the night sky. Men and vehicles moved as shadows in the haze. At times a brilliant flare would fly up, explode; hang like a tiny sun battling midnight, and all action would freeze. In a minute or so the flare collapsed into darkness. The pupils of my eyes reopened and adjusted to the thin light. The explosion, which had brought fear, could not sustain it.
There was time to think of what had been left behind. Fear surrendered to petulance, petulance dissolved to remembrance, and remembrance cascaded into speculation.
Until the next flare, until the next artillery barrage.
There are differences between terror, fear and panic. Terror explodes with the first explosion. Terror cannot be dealt with. Fear comes when terror is localized— rifle or sub-machine fire. Those sources are near and something can be done.
Panic builds. Artillery fire, coming from so far so suddenly and so long. The explosions are consistently, persistently near. Nothing can be done, but dig a hole in the ground for protection. In World War I prolonged panic was called “shell shock.” In World War II “battle fatigue.” In Vietnam “post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Though the artillery fire was heavy, one search-lit night the engineers crawled forward with mine detectors. They left a cleared area, a tape corridor wide enough for a sniper to crawl through before the attack in force began. I entered combat crawling on my mud soaked belly.
There were some fourteen million uniformed Americans behind me. Not one in front of me.
An exposed machine gunner had to be careful. If he were in a bunker he could fire a heavy water-cooled machine gun in long bursts. But after the Americans breached the concrete defenses of the Siegfried Line, the German machine gunners were in the open with sub-machine guns. That’s why they fired short bursts. Long ones would reveal their position.
I became exposed. As part of the 334th Infantry Regiment, I was inside the Geilenkirchen salient, in a field northeast of the town of Geilenkirchen, when a German machine gunner saw me. He shot and missed. I dropped behind a small rise onto the wet cold ground. What I had to do was roll over on my shoulder and release an entrenching shovel hooked to my back cartridge belt. If I could dig, I could increase the height of the sheltering mound.
I tried to move.
As I turned, my left shoulder rose above the small rise. The gunner fired and missed. The bullets hit the ground and ricocheted above me. I felt the splatter and heard the whine.
Face down again. He fired again.
I waited a few minutes and tried once more. I lifted my shoulder and twisted for the shovel. The mud splattered. It started about ten in the morning. Now and then he shot just to show he was there. I was on the cold and wet ground for some two hours. I thought I would die. So I talked to God, whom I had neglected for many years.
Because I thought I would die in combat, I wanted to be connected to Infinity. Lying on the ground, becoming more certain of death, I tried to negotiate with the Cosmos. I was 23 and a virgin. I didn’t think masturbation was on the Universe’s agenda of sexual sin.
I had disagreed with my father on the marriage he wanted for me. Abe Wolff worked for Reich Dress, and his friend Yitzhak had a daughter in Manley Frocks. I had said no. “If I ever get out,” I told the Universe, “I will marry whomever my father chooses.”
I never thought you could make a deal with God. My father was a salesman who liked negotiating, but I never liked seeing him do it. The Universe does not wrangle. But I tried: “Infinity, I will go to medical school as my mother wants, and give up literature. Do something for me, please.”
Our machine guns had triggers. If they were thumbed quickly, a minimum of bullets could be fired. About four …tock..tock..tock..tock. I think the German guns worked that way. His sub-machine machine gun went tock..tock. Only two. I heard only two tocks, instead of four. Maybe the German gun had jammed.
I tried to run before he cleared the feed. I dragged my left foot, which seemed paralyzed and I found shelter among the vegetables.
The German farmers had dug up sugar beets before the battle. Large harvested mounds lay in elongated piles across the fields. The heaps were about three feet high and three feet at the bottom of their extended pyramids. I rolled into their protection, belly down. A few minutes later a very long burst, which was absorbed totally by the vegetables. I was safe.
He should not have fired that long burst. He had given away his exposed position. A Browning automatic rifle on my right answered him immediately. A BAR was not a machine gun. It was an inelegant weapon that weighed a lot but not as much as a machine gun. It did its job. He did not fire again. He had given away his position. He had been killed by my friend.
I crawled until it was safe to stand and hobble away.
“High Ground North at Geilenkirchen,” p. 38, Fortune Favored the Brave, A History of the 334th Infantry 84th Division, by Cpl. Perry S. Wolff, Mannheim Press, 1945