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.
Although Hurtgen Forest is one of the battles chiseled into the new National World War II Memorial, it is not nearly as well known as the Battle of the Bulge, fought during the same winter, and it is often overlooked in military studies. One reason for the lack of study is that many American units were defeated in Hurtgen Forest, "and we follow winners," said Lt. Col. Thomas Bradbeer. He uses the battle in courses he teaches at the Army's Command and General Staff College to get officers thinking about what to do when everything on the battlefield works against them.
From a distance of 60 years, the enduring memory of those who survived the battle is one of helplessness.
"It was a death factory," said Leonard Lomell, a lieutenant who was sent to Hurtgen Forest as a commando in the 2nd Ranger Battalion. "One way or another, they got you. You froze to death or you got sick or you got blown to bits."
In early December 1944, Lomell's company was ordered to assault Hill 400, named for its height in feet. The attack on the German position began just before dawn.
The enemy saw the soldiers coming. Artillery shells burst among the treetops 70 feet above, showering down pieces of rock, metal and wood.
Lomell, 84, a retired lawyer who lives in Toms River, N.J., recalls running 100 yards across a slippery field of ice and snow, zigzagging to avoid the mortar and artillery fire. Only 20 of the 68 men who started out with him made it to the top of the hill. Then it got worse.
Though the Germans retreated from the hill, they launched a mortar and artillery barrage that lasted all day, all night and through the following day. The impact bounced soldiers high off the ground, causing serious concussions.
"There were tons of shrapnel, with no place to hide," said Lomell, who was evacuated and spent a year recuperating from his injuries.
U.S. forces held Hill 400 for 21/2 days. Then the Germans regained control and kept it until February.
Pvt. Edmund J. Lopes, an immigrant from the Azores Islands who was drafted and made a U.S. citizen, in that order, on his 18th birthday in 1943, remembers finding himself in the middle of prolonged shelling in the town of Kommerscheidt in November.
The German counterattack started about 3 in the morning. Panzer tanks rumbled in. Lopes saw a wounded friend staggering toward him and took him to an aid station. That act may have saved Lopes' life as well. He was one of only three or four members of his platoon who survived the day.
"When tanks are coming at you and you've just got a rifle, what can do you?" said Lopes, 78, who lives in Newport, R.I.
Pennegar says it would have helped to have three eyes -- one to look ahead, one to watch for mines and trip wires, and one to search for snipers and artillery spotters who hid in the dense foliage and radioed in targets.
"You had to move slow and deliberate," he said. "It was almost painful, the mental strain of trying to look for so many things that could kill you."
Psychologists say that one way humans cope with the tremendous strain of combat is through the sense of shared experience. Camaraderie makes the ordeal more bearable.
But in Hurtgen Forest, many soldiers came to consider it a waste of emotion to bother learning the names of those they fought with; chances were that most would not live through the day's combat. So many fell, and so many replacements were rushed in to take their places, that some companies had casualty rates technically exceeding 100 percent.
When Staff Sgt. Frank Kusnir joined the 28th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit mobilized from Pennsylvania, he knew everyone in his unit. While battling in Europe, the division started getting replacement infantrymen from other units. By the time it got to the Hurtgen Forest, it was taking anyone who walked.
"Eventually, we had cooks and mechanics coming out," said Kusnir, 87, who lives in Harrisburg, Pa. "When there were replacements, you didn't get to know their names. If they survived, then you got to know them."
Bob Frisby, who was just a sergeant, became a de facto company commander for three days when every superior officer was wounded or killed in an artillery attack.
Replacements who made it through a week's combat sometimes found themselves the veterans in their companies. Others never made it to combat at all.
"Before you ever knew who they were or could assign them to a platoon, they were hit," recalled Frisby, 81, of York, Pa.
He hasn't thought about a lot of this for many years, and his voice grows weary when he describes what combat was like.
"It didn't pay to make close friends," he said. "You missed them all the more. That wasn't good."
For Pennegar, World War II ended in the Hurtgen Forest. The day he was wounded, he was on patrol with the three other surviving men in his squad of 12. They were in a diamond formation, Pennegar in the rear, when a shell landed in the middle.
He woke up in a field hospital three days later and learned that the other three had been killed. One day not long after that, he heard a voice call out to him with a simple mention of the devastated company he had left: "Charlie Company." A soldier who recognized Pennegar's face grabbed his hand and told him, "We're the only ones left."
Tomorrow: How the war changed Washington.