With Memorial Day nearly upon us, we as Americans take the time to remember the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that paid the ultimate sacrifice. Today I will join other members of our local Veterans Council and visit the local high school for a Memorial Day ceremony to fill in for those who can’t be there. Many of our veterans, especially the WWII vets are still reluctant to talk about their experiences. That’s why this story is personal and was eye opening.
My father fought in WWII in Europe and was a Tank Destroyer commander. He never spoke about what he saw. Even after I was a soldier myself and in Special Forces, he wouldn’t speak much except when the subject came to the concentration camps which he liberated one and the images haunted him until he passed on.
As coincidence would have it, he was assigned to the 774th Tank Destroyer Bn. Many years later my team number in the 7th SFG(A) would be A-774. A weapons sergeant from my team and good friend Chuck Simpson’s dad it turned out was also a member of the same TD Bn.
After my father passed away, a few veterans came to his wake. His TD driver, “Spike” Alessandro and “Bones” Fongemie. There were many others who were frequent guests at our home growing up. But whenever the talk about the war came up, they would retreat into another room. At my father’s wake, Alessandro told my sister, brother and me to research what my dad had done, and that he was mentioned in a book that was written by the infantry guys that he was attached to at a battle in Obersehr, Germany in March 1945.
That got my interest, so I did some digging and found a fantastic write up from the battle and yes indeed, I was reading things about my father that I never knew. I then contacted the 94th Infantry Division historian. And asked about the battle of Lampaden Ridge of which Obersehr was a part of. I asked him if he knew about it. “Oh yes, like it was yesterday,” he said. “I was there in Lampaden.” I relayed what I had read. He laughed and said, “you need to talk to one of our guys, he was there and I’m sure he’d be happy to relay what he remembers.” Later as the events unfold, I’ll relay this vet’s comments whose memory was sharp as a whip. But first some background on the battle. I won’t mention his name as to not use it without his permission.
The action in which the 1st Platoon, Company B, 774th Tank Destroyer Battalion as well as the men from 3rd Bn. 302nd Infantry Regiment was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation took place during the early days of March 1945 during the campaign to clear the Saar-Moselle Triangle and the resulting Saar-Palatinate Campaign. During the battle, the tank destroyers were attached in small units to the Infantry as was very common back for the TD Battalions. Interestingly enough, the men were not aware of their award of the Presidential Unit Citation until 1994, when it was finally issued by President Bill Clinton.
The Germans who counter-attacked during this action across Lampaden Ridge were from the German LXXXII Corps and were using a fresh Division, just in the line to spearhead it. The 6th SS Mountain Division was a Waffen-SS formation, composed of both ethnic and native Germans from Tyrol, the Balkans, and Denmark. It was originally formed as an SS Totenkopf (Death’s Head) Division, to mainly occupy Norway. It was originally a Motorized Regiment “Nord” and finally a division.
In 1941, it went to the Russian Front fighting alongside the Finns, until withdrawn in late 1944, into Norway and then Denmark. They infiltrated the lines using the 11th SS Mountain Regiment and the men of the 774th TD Bn. while attached to the 302nd Regt. bested them while inflicting horrible casualties on the Germans. A fine book on the subject “Patton’s Ghost Corps” by Nathan Prefer is a detailed account of the campaign and about the 94th Infantry Division’s personal stories which the 774th took part. There was also the “Destroyer Diaries” from the 774th TD Bn. which was printed by the unit just after the war ended.
The Germans were from the Sixth SS Mountain Division, and they were proud of it. Their objective was to cut the supply lines to Trier. The village of Obersehr was to be taken, but they had not counted on so many of Americans already being there. Only a handful of Infantry was supposed to be holding it. There was less than half a company; two crews of an Infantry cannon company, and three sections of the first platoon of Company B, 774th TD Bn.
Their attack on the village started on a night as black with no moon; their forces were a full company of Mountain Infantry, plus a platoon of engineers. The German’s tactics were excellent; the village was quietly by-passed, encircled with MGs and infiltration into the main street started.
As one German was setting up an MG between two vehicles in front of the TD CP, he was shot by SGT Carl G. Parsons. The Germans opened fire and mowed down two men, SGT Frank Pilys, and PVT Edward White, who had been on guard at the edge of town and had been edging their way through the darkness to find out what was going on.
More of the enemy could be heard moving into the village but could not be seen. The Infantry took their post at a corner house, bringing the two wounded men with them. PFC Walter “Bones” Fongemie, at an outpost, called in to warn the CP that more Germans were coming but no help could be sent to him. He was on his own and cut off.
On the opposite flank at almost the same moment, PVT Frank Marion and PVT Roy Robinson opened fire with .50 cal. MG and the cries of the enemy told that several were hit. When the gun jammed, Marion field stripped it and put it back while under murderous machine-gun crossfire. The gun jammed again, so bringing it with them they withdrew into one of the houses where they joined the rest of the 1st TD section. The 2nd Section was located directly across the street. The fire and resultant chaos in the house to house fighting at point-blank range kept the TD men from getting to their vehicles.
Lt Charles Smith was heard making his way down the street, trying to reach his wounded men and to contact the Infantry. They hailed him and informed him that the wounded men were with them. On his return to the TD CP, he was hit twice. In spite of intense enemy fire from automatic weapons, SGT Sherman Norton crawled out and half dragged, half carried the LT to safety. Lt Smith is a man of large proportions, being 6’0,190 pounds, but SGT Norton, of Indian and Irish descent, was immense, 6’3″ and 230 lbs. SGT Norton was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism, one of six the Bn. was awarded during this action.
In the meantime, SSG William J. “Brooklyn” Murphy and PFC Thomas T. Legista stripped one of the vehicles of ammunition and weapons. T/4 Harry S. Hansen crept out to the M-20 Command Armored Car and sent a radio message. These actions drew concentrated fire from all sides. SGT Hurlbert D. Martin dashed across the street to inform the 2nd section of the situation, but they were well aware of it. Action quieted down on both sides until daylight.
A dirty gray mist came with the dawn. The M-1 rifles of the Infantry began to bark, picking off the SS who were trying to observe from foxholes outside the village. The enemy was revealed in possession of a house opposite the TD CP from which they hurled incendiary grenades. PFC Roy M. Arendall ran about the CP building smothering the grenades with blankets.
A German Panzerfaust shell ripped a huge hole through the wall upstairs, narrowly missing SGT Louis L. Balestrieri, who was stunned by the concussion, and hurled into the back of the room and covered with debris. He quickly recovered and went back to his post in the window with a .30 caliber MG. From across the street, Infantryman SSG Arthur Cross called to SGT Norton and Balestrieri, “Hey TDs, we stick it out to the cemetery”. This brought back the laconic, muffled reply “Yeah Boy!”
Not long afterward Lt. John R. “Black Jack” Stewart called for artillery. Shells screamed over the roofs in a devastating, accurate barrage. The men held their posts in the village which the enemy was using for an ammo dump was reduced to rubble after being set on fire, destroying large quantities of ammunition.
Next came in the radio message that help was coming, Slowly, but surely, during a lull in artillery file, a German officer came out with a white flag to urge the Americans to surrender as they were cut off for miles and greatly outnumbered. SSG (Later LT) Murphy, PFC Legista, and PFC William J. Bergeron (a .50 cal MG in his hands) rejected this offer with very strong language (GFY was the actual reply) and informed him that help was on the way. The German laughed and said, “Don’t be comical”. He returned to his position, the flag went down, and the fight was on again.
Then artillery, both German and American, poured into and around the village. This time everyone tried to take cover. Screaming meemies (Nebelwerfers) exploded all over the place, doing the enemy more harm than good falling on German positions, but they were becoming desperate. When the artillery would stop for a moment the German SS would open up with automatic weapons and scream at the top of their voices.
Finally, all hell broke loose when an American Sherman tank leading two others smashed thru the German roadblocks into the encircled town. The effect on the GI’s was electric. They poured from the houses to direct the tanks and the Infantry climbed up on them. The Germans ran in confusion in all directions. Panicked, 70 of the SS men tried to dash across an open field to the safety of the woods, none made it. They were cut down by a mixture of M-1, .30 caliber and .50 caliber machine guns. The Shermans and the tank destroyers, now manned by the 774th, and the infantry destroyed two German Hetzer tank destroyers that tried to push thru to support the German infantry in the center of the town. Two Shermans were knocked out in the assault.
After the ensuing surrender, a German officer haughtily told an interrogator, “I did not surrender, I was captured”. Seventy-eight others were “captured” with him. Almost double that were found killed in the streets and in the foxholes outside the village. The Infantry from the 302nd Regt. later remarked that without the TD’s, the situation would have been impossible. The Tank Destroyer men then said without the Infantry from the 302nd they would have all been dead.
When I spoke with this vet on the phone, he was talking about this battle like it had taken place yesterday not nearly three quarters a century ago. I asked him about the events that unfolded. “Hell yeah, we got in a good scrap that night,” he said. He said that the Germans had worn captured American uniforms and crawled close to the OPs (observation posts) where they heard the password and countersign.
As I relayed the story of the Panzerfaust, he chuckled. “Now I didn’t know your Dad, as the TD guys would be attached to us for a few days here and there and be gone somewhere else, but I remember that well,” he said.
“We held most of the houses and the Germans were all over the streets, there was hell to pay. I saw your father putting fire on some SS at the corner when this kid with a Panzerfaust blasted him at point-blank range. I thought he was done.”
“We were yelling back and forth across the street, they couldn’t get into the TDs because the SS were all over the place. Once they did in the morning…it was all over. That’s when the Shermans and more infantry broke thru.”
At about 0200 of 6 March, SGT Max Ledesma of the Company K of the 302nd Regt. moved forward to run a one-man contact patrol with Company L. As he approached a cemetery he was challenged by several soldiers who knew the correct password. Before he could reply, he recognized the peculiar German helmet silhouette and opened fire. Return fire severely wounded him and he crawled back to his position and notified his men about the compromised password.
The Germans had encircled Lampaden as they had Obersehr, and had infiltrated the town and had surrounded two guns of the 2nd section of the 1st Plt. of B Company, 774th TD Bn. While leading an attack on the third gun position, the crew killed seven Germans and drove the remaining ones back. After daybreak, the enemy attack at all points and the fighting became fierce.
The two gun sections, using small arms fire killed fifteen Germans who had rushed their positions. The 302nd Inf. was fighting fierce battles all over the town. PFC Wallace Gallant, manned an MG position until the barrel was glowing red-hot, and when low on ammunition, used an M-1 rifle to pick off individual targets. He was to earn the Distinguished Service Cross on this day. The Americans held on the 6th and both sides planned to attack the following morning.
The enemy attacked again in the early morning of 7 March. Supported by self-propelled guns, mortars, rockets and artillery fire, the attack came against the southern and eastern avenues into the town. The fighting was more vicious than the day before. Gun tubes were lowered to fire point-blank into the waves of advancing German infantry. Machine gun fire and both 60mm and 81mm mortar fire decimated the German attackers to the extent that the SS troops faltered. The Germans would not take Lampaden.
PS There is an attached US Army after action video from the morning after the battle as it shows the area as the Americans regrouped. Later I was contacted by a Dutch archeologist who dug around the battlefields in the early 2000s and dug up quite a few artifacts. He sent the pictures of the battle some sixty years later which shed new light on it.
To read something about your father in a book that you never knew about was very interesting. Then to talk to someone who was there and remembered it vividly was beyond words. Our greatest generation, the WWII men should be encouraged to tell their stories. Not only on Memorial Day but every day. Their ranks are thinning fast and that segment of our generation is being lost. Don’t let another story go untold. Talk to them and let the rest of the story be told.
Photos/videos courtesy of US Army,94th Inf. Div., 774th TD Bn. and Louis Balestrieri