Who Were These Men?

(Note: This is an “internet draft” before the article goes to physical print. -EJH)

  • Daytime.
  • France.
  • January 1945.
  • Vosges Mountains region.
  • One of the coldest winters documented in this sector for many years, insomuch as a stranger like you knows.
  • The snow has finally stopped falling.
  • You cannot feel your fingers or your toes, and it has been that way for days.

A platoon of young American soldiers moves steadily through a village on fire.  For days, the village was shelled, shot at, besieged, taken by the enemy, liberated, retaken by the enemy; changing hands multiple times in hand to hand combat between Axis and Allied forces, until American forces could finally work their way into the town permanently.

***

The Germans?  They were men fighting to hold the village who had been in constant combat for years without pause.  They were young men assigned to arguably one of the toughest, best trained, best equipped elements in their entire sector in January 1945.  They were young men and teenage children of the 6. SS Gebirgsdivision “Nord” – the Waffen SS 6th Mountain Division “Nord.”  They were the spearhead of the last German offensive on the Western Front: Unternehmen Nordwind – Operation: North Wind.  They had traveled thousands of kilometers by all manner of transportation and on foot from the Arctic Circle to get here.  They had moved by rail through the Hell on earth that Germany had become in the wake of the constant day and night terror bombings over every major city.  Before they could reach France, they had already lost men to enemy aircraft when their train could not be completely covered and concealed in a tunnel.  It was a moment most of them had never experienced before because they were not used to dealing with enemy aircraft.  Spending years in constant combat against the Russians, away from their families, these men had achieved their objectives in the north.  They were able to stop the Communists from gaining access into the heart of the Third Reich by way of the Scandinavian corridor.  Now, they were on their last assignment: to stop Americans they had never met in their lives, many with names just like theirs, from breaching the West Wall, or Siegfried Line.

The Americans?  They were brand new, fresh to the entire European Theater of Operations.  They were young men from all over America.  Some had never finished high school.  Many had never left their home states, much less America, before becoming soldiers.  Some of them would never leave Europe after the war and are still there today, their bodies still buried in military cemeteries dotted around France; cemeteries for men who died in WWII that have since been completely forgotten by the collective memories of the average Baby Boomer, Generation X, Millennial, and Generation Z Americans: the last four major generations of America.  These American men were soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 274th Infantry Regiment, 70th Infantry Division “Trailblazers.”  They had been in combat for less than a week when they faced the Waffen SS, and many of them lived to tell the tale.  They had only received standard combat loads of ammunition for their rifles, machine guns, and pistols a few weeks prior.  They were arguably the most combat inexperienced US Army infantry battalion in Europe that week, and they were certainly some of the most inexperienced men the Waffen SS soldiers of Nord would ever fight.  They were the freshest troops to face these Waffen SS soldiers since their years of constant combat that took place primarily in a land near the North Pole.  In spite of that, the Americans performed their duties without fail here and now in a remote mountain pass in France.

***

A cold wind blows across flames and smoke that rise from the remains of the Hotel Wenk, in the heart of the village of Wingen-sur-Moder, France.

Panicked civilians with infants and the elderly in their arms move swiftly toward evacuation points set up by the US Army Military Police unit attached to the operation.  Mothers and grandmothers carry with them clothes and blankets, and bottles of wine that will calm their nerves once they settle into large, open topped American 2.5 ton trucks that will rush them along slippery mountain roads to safety.

The civilians rush past the bodies of strangers lying all over their village.  Dead and dying young men, all of the same race, but all of whom spoke two different languages from two different cultures separated by an ocean, lay all over the town while wearing two completely different uniforms.  Their brothers in arms cannot stop to recover their remains at the moment.  A column of M4 Sherman tanks carefully maneuvers around dead young men wearing American and German uniforms.

The civilians move swiftly passed soldiers still conducting house to house clearing operations.  The American soldiers are using equipment and tactics to perform offensive urban warfare that would bewilder and downright terrify even the most experienced Special Forces soldiers in the Global War on Terror.

Two American soldiers pick up a handmade ladder made by the residents of the village as their actions are captured on film.  Their tired buddies look on while still trying to pull some semblance of tactical security as everyone stands in the confines of a slippery, cold, cramped alleyway choked by building rubble.  The men use the ladder to batter against a large wooden door to a house potentially occupied by German forces.  Behind them, two US Army Signal Corps combat cameramen capture the moment on both an A roll and a B roll of film for posterity.

The house door was designed and built with Medieval era carpentry standards to withstand generations of bad mountain weather and intruders.  The men have no breaching tools modern day soldiers and police officers are blessed with using, and arguably abuse and take for granted.  They have no night vision devices to aide them in their movement through the darkness of unlit Medieval buildings that had been shelled with artillery strikes that were called in without the benefit of Global Positioning Satellites.  They have no non-lethal explosives; any grenade thrown into an uncleared home could spell the death of innocents and enemies alike: men, women, children, elderly, puppies, and kittens.

The sector has to be taken.  The job has to be done.

As the civilians make their way under armed American escort to the large trucks that will carry them to a displaced civilian collection point, gunfire is still heard everywhere.  Wood smoke curls under the nose of every man, woman, and child.  The smell of gunpowder chokes every soul.  Snow drifts around the corpses of soldiers from each side of the battle.  Newer, fresher corpses of young men thrust into a war of complete and utter fratricide still sizzle and burn from explosions that took their lives.  Steam rises from the dying and the recently dead.  Every man still alive in this human slaughterhouse can see his own disgusting, military ration-fed breath in front of his face.

Gefallen Soldat des 6 SS Gebirgsdivision Nord in Wingen sur Moder Frankreich Januar 1945
(US National Archives)

The hopes and dreams of a French town have been gradually ground into a fine powder, soaked in European and American blood beneath fresh snow, in a region filled with weeks of constant combat separated into parts by days of quietness.

***

Heavy machine guns rattle in pounding succession from M4 Sherman tanks. Fifty caliber tracer bullets race across the valley, over a frozen stream, and into the trees of a mountainside nearby.  The sound rocks the entire village, echoing off any surface that is still intact after the constant shelling over the past several days.  The survivors of the Waffen SS forces have retreated to fight on another day (and they would fight on with honor for several more months until finally surrendering after being completely surrounded).

Hundreds of starving American prisoners swarm the liberated town square after rushing out of the basements of several buildings to include the basement of the Christian church.  For several days they were held captive with limited food and water.  The captors did not torture them, but many of their cold weather items, weapons, and foodstuffs were taken by a desperate enemy.

The day is coming to an end.  It’s getting colder.

It was a village like many others in France near the German border in World War Two, and it had been finally liberated of Axis control.

But who were the young American men who were behind this liberation?

***

The platoon stops for a moment in front of a combat cameraman.  The cameraman squeezes the trigger of his movie camera for one single, solitary, minuscule second as the men pose with a German National Socialist flag in their possession.  Decades later, a viewer of the film would have missed the moment had they blinked, rubbed their eyes, or looked away from watching the film footage.  For one brief second, one can see the moment from January 1945 flash onto their viewing screen.  It shows young American men who are somber but smiling, as they stand together in a crowd that shows the reduced numbers of a unit that sustained casualties.

Again, who were these soldiers?

Who were the young American men who, after days without any sleep and little to no food, rescued hundreds of American prisoners, and evacuated French civilians, all while battling some of Adolf Hitler’s toughest modern day knights who still walked the face of the earth? Who were these men of a battalion that earned the Presidential Unit Citation within its first week of combat in the Second World War?

Aftermath Wingen sur Moder Liberation Screenshot NARA Footage(US National Archives)

With tears wanting to flood my eyes, I desperately ask the world: who were they?

-EJH

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