The great bulk of the tank loomed out of the darkness just ahead, completely filling the narrow road. Pine trees pressed in closely on either side, almost brushing the sides of the tank. The two men at the head of the column stopped three, maybe four feet away. Visibility had been a problem from the beginning. The ground mist had worsened since they moved out, and after entering the woods a hundred yards back it became impossible to see more than a rifle's length ahead.
It was midnight on Christmas Eve, 1944. The men in Company K were moving up to recapture Verdenne, a small Ardennes village overrun by a German armored force six hours earlier. At the moment they were looking for a group of American Sherman tanks assigned to support their attack.
Earlier that evening the company had been hastily trucked to Bourdon, Belgium. Piling off the vehicles, the two officers and platoon sergeants went into a small schoolroom -- its windows blacked out with blankets -- to be briefed on the attack: Several Shermans, pulled back after Verdenne's capture, were standing by for the midnight counterattack. There could be no delay. K Company was to form a skirmish line on the far side of the woods, then push ahead 500 or 600 yards across open fields and retake the still-burning town. The plan called for the company to tie in with the American tanks, which would then fan out behind the infantry, providing covering fire and needed reassurance.
The battalion commander had made it a point to promise an early Christmas dinner as soon as the company had dug in on the outskirts of the village. King Company was down to 70 men, just a bit more than a third of full strength, and nearly half the 70 were replacements to compensate for the heavy casualties the company sustained in Siegfried Line fighting during November.
Bud Leinbaugh, K Company's commander, and John Campbell, the only other officer remaining in the unit, left the schoolhouse and rejoined the men forming up in the street. They knew that luck, as much as skill, would count heavily in the attempt to retake Verdenne. Use of "the school solution," Army slang for consensually approved tactics, offered no guarantee of success. Campbell recalled the doggerel on a headstone in a fake graveyard at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga.: Here lie the bones of Lt. Jones, A graduate of this institution. He died on the night of his very first fight, While using the school solution.
As the company moved out from Bourdon, Franklin Brewer, the communications sergeant who remained on duty in the company command post, called to Sgt. Don Phelps: "Merry Christmas. Take care of yourself."
Phelps tossed a casual "Don't worry," but he had a strong feeling he was going to be hit that night.
The column crossed the railroad tracks, began the ascent toward the ridge line, then stopped at a fork in the road. Which way -- right or left? The staff sergeant guiding K Company in the direction of the Shermans (he had been among those pushed out of Verdenne earlier in the day) was unsure. After a quizzing he pointed left. Leinbaugh pulled the map from his field jacket. He knelt, and struck several matches, but couldn't pick up the location.
"What's the name of that goddamn town?"
"Verdenne," Campbell said. "I'm pretty sure that's it."
They moved on.
The men at the front of the company entered the wood and reached the first tank. As they stopped next to the tank, Leinbaugh motioned to Phelps and told him to have the tankers latch on the tail end of the company so they could form up together after passing beyond the woods.
Phelps felt his way along the side of the tank and pounded on the turret with his M-1. "Hey you guys, open up." He pounded again.
The hatch opened slowly, the head and shoulders of a man appeared.
"Was ist los?" the man demanded. "Was ist los?"
Half a lifetime later we both can still remember the jolting discovery that the tank was not one of ours. The sounds of tank fire as its big gun, then other guns, opened up on us, the smell of cordite and broken pines, even the rough feel of the frozen, earth beneath us as we hit the ground and made for the cover of the ditches on either side of the road -- those still are real.
But in another sense, looking back at our war is like looking at a distant movie, a bit out of focus, the sound track blurred by the passing years. Those two young lieutenants -- Leinbaugh and Campbell -- could they be us? Is what we remember of that Christmas what really happened, or has it been shaped and sculpted into a better story in the telling and retelling of the tale?
In a line company, stress, fatigue, and confusion combine to make a literally accurate recording of battle events impractical and almost impossible, even on the spot. It took long talks with a dozen veterans of the fighting to establish a reasonable account of the events on the Bourdon-Verdenne road on Christmas Eve, 1944. The reflections of the 35 years that intervene have shifted the realtive significances of what happened, and the remoteness of those youths we were a third of a century ago suggests the rightness of writing in the third person of the soliders that once were. The factual details we offer in this story may vary from official accounts in some respects, but the events as we offer them have shaped our lives and are thus, for us, the most important kind of truth.
As battles go, the Christmas engagement around Verdenne was neither particularly famous nor important, but it typified the hundreds of sharp, usually brief, encounters between Germans andAmericans known officially as the Ardennes campaign, but more commonly referred to as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Bulge began at 0500 hours on Dec. 16, 1944, when assault elements fo 36 German divisions broke through thinly held American positions in the Ardennes forest in southeastern Belgium, creating a burgeoning bulge backwards in the Allied front line. It ended just one month later when the U.S. First and Third Armies linked up at Houffalize, effectively flattening the bulge.
At the battle's end, 27 U.S. divisions were involved, more than had been committed in the whole Pacific war. And although estimates of U.S. and German losses vary, Americans killed, wounded and captured approaced 77,000. German losses, half again as many more, clearly hastened the war's end.
Addressing the House of Commons shortly after the battle, Winston Churchill pronounced it a historic encounter. "They [the Americans] have suffered losses almost equal to those of both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg . . . ," he said. "This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory."
The role of Doughboy Blue King (33rd Infantry Regiment, Third Battalion, K Company) was not central to the outcome of the fighting for Verdenne. Other units of the American 84th Railsplitter Division were more heavily engaged and suffered many more casualties. The division history written a few months after the battle merely noted with respect to K Company's Christmas Eve meeting that "the tussle revealed where the enemy strength was."
Tussle, battle, for us it was a time to remember.
Old soliders often mentally return to battles long ended, and many make actual pilgrimages to these places from the past.
Perhaps this reflects the infantryman's ties with the land: His defined mission is to take and hold ground. There are hills to be climbed, towns and forests offering concealment for friend and foe, shallow roadside ditches giving the soldier with his nose to the ground some protection from enemy fire. Understandable is the combat soldier's feeling that land once fought across in some strange way "belongs" to him. Of course it is not ownership, but the alchemy of battle makes it part of the infantry-man's life.
That tie drew up back to Belgium in 1969. We established our base at the Hotel de la Cloche in Marche-en-Famenne, the small city where General Bolling located his headquarters after the 84th Division dashed from Germany to the fluid front that was the Ardennes. Then we moved 25 years into the past.
We couldn't find all we were looking for. Where was it that Mike DiBello on the 22nd or 23rd of December had set up a Christmas tree outside a half-destroyed house, the company's command post? With his bayonet he'd hacked down a scroungy little pine and stuck it in the muddy ground. He'd carefully wrapped his creation with machine-gun belts and had used four hand grenades -- live ones, of course -- as tree ornaments. A teddy bear-size doll with flaxen hair sat wedged near the top. It was wearing DiBello's gas mask, a piece of equipment every World War II soldier found totally useless.
We found old foxholes and antitank-gun emplacements, their outlines softened by time, undergrowth and the weather, but still unmistakably there. A small gravel pit that had sheltered us for part of a night and a day had somehow disappeared. But there was a chill of recognition when we came to the edge of the woods and the spot where we met the German tank.
After a couple of days in the area we weren't expecting many surprises. But then there came a telephone call from a certain Gerhard Tebbe. Local papers had reported that two "anciens lieutenants de la Co. K, 333e Infantry" from the "bataille de Verdenne en decembre 1944" were retracing their steps. Word of this reached Tebbe, a former commander of Panzers, at his home in Bad Soden am Taunus, about 150 miles to the east in Germany. As he told us later, here were men who had been his adversaries during the Ardennes offensive. He thought us honorable, worth getting acquainted with. Our prior meeting, he said, had been gun-to-gun. Now he would make our acquaintance face-to-face.
In his phone call, Tebbe told us that in December 1944 he had been a major, commanding the first (Panther) Battalion, Panzer-Regiment 16; on Christmas Eve he had commanded all the tanks in the Panzerkampfgruppe that we ran into. He proposed -- and we agreed -- that he drive over from Bad Soden the next day and spend about three hours with us. So Tebbe arrived -- and spent three days. Greetings were cautious, formal. But within an hour of our meeting our initial reserve had passed. Here was a tall, erect man, clear eyed and firm featured, whose remarks demonstrated that he was every inch the combat professional. He had entered the German army in 1934 and soon after the fall of France in 1940 became a Panzer officer. Along with the others of the 116th (Greyhound) Panzer Division he had seen combat on both the Eastern and the Western fronts. A veteran of over 100 engagments, several tanks had been shot out from under him. (One of the tanks he commanded still stands, a rusting memorial on the streets of Houffalize about 20 miles from Verdenne.) He too had felt this strong desire to return to the scene of a Christmas past.
At a table in the Hotel de la Cloche formality was soon shed. We were in shirt-sleeves, poring over a map, a luxury not always available 25 years earlier.
The size of the German force in the woods Christmas Eve was still a key question, for from their limited vantage point that night Leinbaugh and Campbell saw only one or two tanks. On Christmas Day regimental intelligence "confirmed" this. But the gradually accumulating evidence from the events of later days suggested larger counts. Would Tebbe support our hunch that he had as many as 18 tanks there in the forest? He thought a moment, then gave his deliberate, considered reply: "I believe maybe 40 . . . 40 tanks." So much for intelligence estimates.
Tebbe still remembered details of his mission in the vicinity of the village of Verdenne: to cut the Marche-Namur road. And he described the advance of his tanks toward Christmas Eve -- from Houffalize, past La Roche and Hampteau, then a three-day battle at Hotton. The night of the 24th he and his tanks pushed through a partially burning Verdenne to the forest beyond.
At 2300 hours on 24 December Major Tebbe stopped the attack. For him and his tired men, as for the Americans, information concerning what was ahead was typically uncertain. As he told us, "On one side the Americans didn't know how much Germans would be there -- and also the Germans didn't know how many Americans would be there in their neighborhood; so they both were silent and could celebrate Christmas Eve." For him his thoughts must have been permeated with feelings of sadness. For more than a year he had known that Germany could not win the war: "The losses were very big . . . It was simply a question of mathematics."
When Major Tebbe ordered his tanks to stop for the night they were on a narrow, forested road near an escarpment south of Bourdon and less than a mile from the main highway linking Hotton and Marche. His group had outpaced both the supporting infantry and artillery, and the tankers were dead tired. They had been attacking for eight days.
Tebbe was to have celebrated his 34th birthday Dec. 21, but tragedy intervened. His aide, a senior noncom who had been with him through France, Poland and Russia, took a light VW staff car by circuitous route back to the battle group's command post near Houffalize and picked up a large birthday cake from the officers' field kitchen. The sergeant headed back for the lead tanks along a road following the Ourthe river. Early the next morning German supply troops found the noncom's body, riddled with bullets, sprawled in a ditch next to his overturned car.
Now late on the 24th, the German major tried to get comfortable in his command tank. As he examined his maps, over his radio came the sounds of bells ringing in Christmas at the cathedral in Cologne. He heard rifle shots ahead. He slammed the hatch closed and glanced at his watch in the dim light. It was exactly midnight.
Campbell and Leinbaugh and the men right behind them hit the ditch as the machine gun on the German tanks opened up. At the same time the tanks revved up their engines, but made no attempt to move forward and crush the GIs in the shallow ditches. Then the Panthers started firing their 75s -- the lead tank fired high-explosive shells straight ahead; the tanks to the rear angled their shells into the woods.
Phelps crawled back, got a bazooka and some bazooka ammo, and crawled forward again. He loaded up, then cralwed closer using what little cover the pines provided. He fired, pulled back a short distance -- and then his war ended. Shrapnel fragments mangled his left hand, skimmed along his right arm and, with a damaging carom off the bazooka tube, whined into the night.
Phelps crawled back down the hill until, near the tail of the company, he had sufficient cover t stand and trot to the rear. As he headed back to the aid station near the edge of Bourdon, he yelled out, "Merry Christmas, fellows. Give them hell."
Prone in the ditch, Leinbaugh reached behind him and grabbed the handset of the SCR300 carried by his radioman. He was just in time to hear the battalion commander asking what in the hell was going on.
Leinbaugh yelled back they'd run into German tanks and were pinned down. The colonel wasn't persuaded.
"Get that stuff out of your way and get moving." Leinbaugh vividly recalls pushing the talk switch and easing the radio handset a few inches over his helmet so headquarters could get the full effect of a German connon blasting off a few feet away. Then he turned the radio off, effectively silencing the colonel. Getting out of the mess was more important than arguing with battalion.
But we are still convinced that Leinbaugh's order which followed the discovery of the German tank -- "Let's get the hell out of here" -- reflected sound military strategy. No one in K Company was killed that night, and only four men in addition to Don Phelps were wounded.
The results were indecisive, K Company moved slowly back along the approach route to a defensive position (anchored at one end by a gravel pit) protecting Bourdon and the Marche-Hotton highway from the German armor. Leinbaugh and Campbell prowled the perimeter, saw to it that mines were laid out, and arranged for defensive artillery concentrations. The company jeep brought up ammo -- and coffee and overcoats, for the temperature had dropped well below freezing and a hint of snow was in the air. Artillery and tank fire was audible in the distance, but K Company's 300-yard defensive sector remained quiet. The Panzers did not attack.
Christmas began quietly for K Company. In early daylight hours some of the second platoon were eating a quick K-ration breakfast (a container slightly larger than a Cracker Jack box, with contents that, in addition to food, included cigarettes and a small packet of olive-drab toilet paper). During this lull in the action, a new replacement decided to get his first good glimpse of the Germans. His Christmas was tragically brief. He rose partially erect to get an unobstructed view. From acorss the field a sniper's bullet dealt him a quick, quiet death. Twenty-five years later, as we scanned the hillside for the gravel pit and its forward lip where the solider's life ended, we made a momentary effort to identify him in memory. Then with a shock of guilty awareness we realized he had been with K Company so short a time that at the moment of his death Campbell and Leinbaugh had not yet fixed in mind his name.
Later in the day King Company swung around to head northeast into the woods below Verdenne hoping to sweep up some German infantry and get more precise information an the tanks in the pocket. As they moved, Leinbaugh raised his binoculars to study a chateau maybe 100 yards to the right flank. He worried whether it was occupied or not, but saw no troops.
Another fire fight began. A long-handled "potato masher" grenade looped lazily over to land a short distance from Campbell. (As he buried his nose in the ground he remembered reminding Leinbaugh earlier that this weapon was correctly called "die Stielhandgranate.") There was an explosion and a moment of sharp pain as a grenade fragment struck him at his left hip pocket.
The company ground to a halt, then was pulled back to regroup. A few casualties went back to the aid station. Campbell was not among them. His "wound" went unreported except to Leinbaugh. It was embarrassing. A partially spent fragment had broken a pocket comb and had driven the comb's teeth into Campbell's rear end. Though Leinbaugh denies it, Campbell recalls his friend sympathized by asking, "Does knowing how to pronounce it in German make it feel any better?"
for those of Company K who had returned earlier to the gravel pit, the turkey dinner the general had ordered the every GI on the line came up from the company kitchen. The turkey was cold, of course, just like the weather.
At dark on Christmas Day, Bruce Baptie, one of K Company's platoon sergeants who had been in combat through the afternoon, headed down the hill toward Bourdon to get his Christmas dinner. He walked down the narrow road alone. Suddenly, a truck without lights moved slowly past him. Baptie ran along behind, tossed his rifle up a soldier in back and swung onto the tailgate. He glanced around -- the truck was jammed with Germans. Were they reinforcement, or were they prisoners? He never knew. He jumped back on the road, the soldier tossed back his rifle and the truck drove on.
Any good adventure tale needs a castle. Chateau Verdenne, standing in formal aloofness behind a tall wrought-iron fence about 400 yards to the north of the village, came close to filling the fill. It hadn't loomed large in the thoughts, plan, or action of either K Company or Tebbe's tanks. But it was a dominating force for other elements of the German Greyhound and the American Railsplitter divisions; the chateau changed hand five times during the few days' fighting around Verdenne.
As Tebbe's forces entered the forest overlooking Bourdon and the plain extending to the northeast, he skirted the chateau near midnight without seeing it. On Christmas Day he sent a patrol back to check it out. They passed debris of war -- a blasted tank, a soldier decapitated by shellfire -- and found the chateau was occupied by Americans. But Tebbe's own force never attacked it. As he said, "It was not important for me. It was only important to observe it."
But for Baron Charles de Radzitsky d'Ostrowick, his daughter Elizabeth, the townspeople and a changing cast of 84th Division and 116th Panzer troops, Chateau Verdenne was the focus of battle.
Entering through the open gates of the courtyard in 1969 we saw that the wing to our left was evidently still in use. Our knock brought a slender, graying woman to the door. She and her ill and elderly father, the baron, still lived in this part of the chateau.
We weren't the first veterans to visit the chateau, but when we identified ourselves as former members of an 84th Division rifle company, she warmly welcomed us to her home. Over a cup of tea laced with honey and brandy, she shared reminiscences with us in good, but slightly rusty English. Later she opened the shuttered door into the great central hall, a room that, with shocking poignancy, still remained in 1944. It had been a handsome room with an impressive staircase. From the stairs one could see the Radzitsky ancestral portraits which still remained, grotesquely punctured by shrapnel and machine gun bullets.
Up these same stairs a squad of GIs had manhandled a 57 mm gun to a position commanding the fields and woods stretching toward Marenne. Here, too, still stood the billiard table -- its broken legs propped with books -- last used by aidmen bandaging up the wounded from both sides.
We last visited the rooms of the great cellar, when Elizabeth, her father, a number of villagers and some of the wounded combatants spent three days of battle. On Christmas Day itself while she was helping to tend the wounded, the deeply religious Elizabeth noted the sad irony: On this day there would be no mass to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace.
Above them the fighting ebbed and flowed. At first, because the solid ceiling of the cellar obscured the sounds of voices, those in the windowless sanctuary could not tell whether at any given time the chateau was in American or in German hands. But then they realized that the ceilings themselves provided the answer: Heavy noise of walking overhead meant the hobnailed field boots of the Germans; the rubber-soled combat boots and GI overshoes of the Americans wer much quieter.
Finally the tide of fighting flowed on to the northeast. The floors above the cellar were silent. As Elizabeth told us, "I think at that moment the earth hurted . . . Always so much noise . . . and then no more noise. Extraordinary!"
In January, American Graves Registration troops removed the bodies of American dead killed in action in and around the chateau. But in February when Elizabeth's younger brother came home from school in Brussels, some of the fallen Germans still remained, grotesque in frozen death.
Save for the few remaining foxholes, the woods across from the chateau are now healed. Many of the trees have been harvested, many new ones planted. But Elizabeth on occasion still sees former soldiers, followed by dutiful family members, pointing out the "exact tree" (perhaps only 20 years old) that saved a life a quarter of a century earlier. She never denies it.
The day after Christmas, American artillery forced Tebbe to withdraw his tank force. His lead reconnaissance car found that American tanks and trucks lined both sides of the main street of Marenne, the only possible retreat route. Tebbe issued the order "Move out" even so. His maps showed there was no other choice.
His long line of tanks and armored personnel carriers ground slowly over the stone street so narrow there was just room to pass between the stationary American vehicles. It was 6 p.m., dusk. Unaccountable, Tebbe saw no American soldiers, and not a single shot was fired at the German column, which could not have returned the fire. The street was so narrow the tank turrets could not turn.
"I could only breathe again when the rear guard radioed they had cleared the last buildings," Tebbe said.
Less then 15 minutes later, the Germans' luck changed. As the 84th Division history reported. "A strong enemy force . . . came up the road from Marenne. The lead tank ran into a daisy chain of mines . . . trapped infantry tried to flee to the woods east of Menil. . . By 7 p.m., the action was over. Twenty-five vehicles, including six tanks, were knocked out."
Leinbaugh had had a hand in forcing Tebbe's retreat when he called in artillery fire a few hours earlier. He used map coordinates to describe the German tanks' exact position to the fire direction center -- and the first four rounds whistled in over King's position, exploding only 200 yards away. Incredibly enough, the opening salvo made a square hit, blowing up the first Panzer of the column. A half-hour passed while heavy artillery far to the rear determined the proper adjustments for what artillerymen called "time on target."
K Company men first heard the distant rumble of the huge eight-inchers miles to their rear, then the 155s and finally battalion after battalion of the 105s, only several thousand yards distant.
The shells landed simultaneously on the line of German tanks, and then they kept coming as fast as the cannon could be reloaded. Heavy explosive shells were mixed with phosphorous and fuse delays.
Whole trees were blown into the air, tanks and trucks exploded and, as the rain of shells slackened, the screams of dying Germans carried clearly to the watching men of K Company.
Short rounds wounded four men in K and killed one.
That night a patrol made a body count -- the estimate in the dark was 200 to 240 killed and wounded Germans.
When we returned to our hotel on the final evening of our 1969 return to the Ardennes, there was a message waiting for us from our former adversary, now colleague Gerhard Tebbe, who had parted from us earlier in the day to begin a leisurely, circuitous swing back to his home in Germany. His car had broken down in Route N4, a few miles southeast of Namur, and he had called to ask if we would tow him and his car back to Marche for repairs.
Of course. With the assistance of our innkeeper, we stocked up on sandwiches and beer, and moved out on the road to Namur. After a swift 25 miles our lights picked out the disabled vehicle. We swung alongside, got out, and approached on foot. Once again meeting Major Tebbe, we greeted him in German: "Wir haben seiner Kraftwagen Gefangen" -- a reasonable approximation of "We have taken your tank." He joined our laughter as we attached the tow line.
As Tebbe wrote us later, "We are broken with our car so the two American officers picked up the German officer on a long line." It is on these grounds that we stake our claim to having made the last capture in the Battle of the Bulge.
And still they go back. Verdenne remains hidden away in pine-forested hills two miles from the nearest highway, but the village is a tourist attraction of sorts. Some come alone in Volkswagens or Mercedes with German plates; others, in Renaults or Peugeots rented in Brussels. They park their cars and walk down the main street. They look for particular houses and mentally estimate ranges to adjacent ridgelines and old fence rows.
But why Verdenne? Perhaps it's the Agincourt syndrome -- "remembering, with advantages, what feats we did that day . . . we happy few." Yet the action here in those late December days plays only a minor part in the generals' memoirs and the definitive histories. There had to be something more to account for the puzzling pull this village had for us.
We hoped for an answer when, during crisp daylight hours of a winter's day, we drove slowly toward our first glimpse of the town: 30 to 40 houses constructed of the common stone of the region, closely abutting the road passing through. Pleasant, and from a distance appearing deceptively undamaged. Just another Ardennes village. But driving closer, we stopped at the first house on the right as we entered the town. Was this what we were looking for?
Perhaps Shakespeare's King Henry V was still on target: "He that outlives this day and comes straight home will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named." High on the house was the small street sign, one of the blue and white markers commonplace throughout the region. Here was one with a difference, a marker fixed forever in the past: "Rue de Noel, 1944." unus, about 150 miles to the east in Germany. As he told us later, here