WORLD WAR II'S ECHOES:
A Fight Few Survived
Brutal Battle In the Forest
Memories of Endless Combat Haunt Hurtgen Veterans Anew
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2004; Page B01
Second of five articles
In 1944, Pvt. Jacob "Bud" Pennegar was a clerk in an army that desperately needed infantrymen. So three months after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the 19-year-old from Pennsylvania stepped off a troop carrier bringing replacements to the Hurtgen Forest along the German-Belgian border.
He came under shelling within minutes of joining his platoon -- and realized that his M-1 rifle was useless against a relentless barrage of artillery timed to explode in the treetops and scatter a wide dome of shrapnel. All he could do was wrap himself around a tree trunk; being vertical left less of his body exposed than throwing himself on the ground.
"It was brutal," said Pennegar, now a 79-year-old widower living outside Philadelphia. "You'd look around, you couldn't see far because the forest was so dark. But you could make out medics scurrying around. Sometimes you'd hear the wounded yelling for a medic. Sometimes you'd hear their buddies. If it was their buddies, there wasn't much need for a medic."
Six decades later, the memory of his three weeks in the Hurtgen Forest still has the power to make Pennegar shudder and cry. "I feel guilty that I made it," he said softly. "Not lucky. Guilty. Damn."
The veterans of World War II are of a generation that never talked much about its experiences in combat. Now, at the end of their lives, the opening of the National World War II Memorial is prodding many of them to recall harrowing days when they were young soldiers and afraid.
It was a war fought largely by young men who were drafted or enlisted fresh out of high school and who had few of the technological gadgets, protections and conveniences of modern warfare. Soldiers went into battle with no body armor, only helmets, and they sometimes came under artillery and mortar fire that seemed ceaseless.
"I don't even think soldiers today have an understanding how bad it was," said Robert S. Rush, a former Army Ranger who is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and author of the book "Hell in Hurtgen Forest."
"When you're shot at, and shooting back, you lose all sense of time. It's one thing if it's episodic -- two or three minutes, an hour, then you can rest and recuperate. But if you have to do it every hour, day after day, it becomes debilitating on the psyche."
The weather added to the misery. The U.S. infantrymen who advanced through France and Germany waged war in mud, rain, snow and fog. As the hardest winter in decades pressed in, most wore field jackets, ponchos and porous boots, and they carried blankets instead of sleeping bags. When it rained, vehicles became mired in mud and foxholes filled up like water basins that then froze over.
Hurtgen Forest featured all those harsh conditions, as well as a foreboding setting. The battleground was 50 square miles of thick woods that were dark even under sunlight. Soldiers often could not see who was standing only 10 feet away.
From Sept. 19, 1944, to Feb. 10, 1945, American commanders sent one division after another into a forest that was too dense for tanks to maneuver in, under inclement weather that often made air support all but impossible.
More than 24,000 U.S. soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured in the five-month battle. Another 9,000 were incapacitated by disease, particularly trench foot, a crippling injury caused by exposure to cold and moisture. Entire companies were wiped out in the fighting.
Eventually, U.S. troops achieved their objective: to control the dams along the Roer River, preventing the Germans from flooding the valley to stop the American advance into Germany. But few considered it real victory. Rather, many historians have questioned why the commanders did not bypass the forest instead of engaging the enemy under such formidable conditions.
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