the same where I crossed it. But you don't know how low my behind's a-hangin' today."
Everybody laughed again, and soon the other old-young veterans of Beek and Randerath
were retelling their oft-told tales, well embroidered. Then the replace-ments, the new
fellows sent to take the places of the men who got it at Beek and Randerath, found
them-selves laughing and enjoying themselves. I don't know if Pancho meant it that way,
but he had broken an awful tension.
In the smoky cellar we went on chewing the rag. Photos of wives and families were passed around for inspection. Then, one by one, the others lay down and tried to sleep. When their eyes had been shut a good while, I went over to the corner and removed the hand grenades from above the stove and placed them in the far corner. Now I'll try to sleep.
The mess sergeant came in and woke us up. That is, he
woke the others up, if they were sleeping. I was not.
Outside, in the cold night air, helmeted shadows sloshed
about in the mud. From big smoking cans we were dealt
out pancakes, cereal, and coffee. I was surprised to find
In the cellars and houses, the GIs were packing to
move. They put on waders. Around their bellies, already
fat with ammunition, they wrapped life preservers, then
inflated them with air. K rations were stuffed in pockets.
Everything else, overcoats, mess kits, blankets, was piled
in a corner to be picked up later by follow-up squads.
Back in the cellar again, Harold Miller wondered where
we all would be tomorrow this time. Pancho, lacing his
boots, started singing:
"What a difference a day makes,
Twenty-four little hours . . . ."
Pancho is assembling the men in the muddy trough of a road outside. In a quarter of an hour we will start marching up the road across the flatlands to the Roer River. We will march single file on either side of the road.
The barrage, Pancho said, would open just about when we were halfway to the river. Then, when Jerry started responding, we might have to leave the road. If we did, we must follow him, for there were still mines in the fields.
This is Roerdorf and I am in a deep strong cellar, thank God. I don't think I shall ever again witness a spectacle as terrifying as that I have just seen.
We marched over the silent road to a village called Welz, halfway to the river. When we were leaving
the village, our barrage opened up at precisely 0245 hours. Almost instantly the navy blue sky turned
into a dome of yellow fire as a thousand guns blasted forth. And they kept on firing, dotting the
horizons behind and in front of us with momentary patches of red from the blasts of the guns and
the hits of our shells. They thundered and roared over our heads like a hundred express trains.
On that flat plain, walking erect, I felt naked, exposed, terrified. Once I think I almost broke.
I wanted to dive for the ditch and stay in it until this was over. But I
looked ahead and saw
Pancho strutting on like a bantam rooster and I was ashamed of myself. This is what I mean by saying company and platoon leaders mold the shape of war. If Pancho had shown a sign of breaking, I'd have gone into the ditch to stay. And I think a lot of soldiers would have gone with me.
Jerry was apparently stunned by the sudden blast. He did not respond for a full quarter hour. Then he cut loose. Among other things, he lined our road with mortar bursts. Three times I had to dive for the ditch. Once I lost my helmet and spent a terrible minute groping in the mud for it.
We left the road and cut across the fields, a long twisting snake of moving men, all following Pancho. Then our long-range machine guns opened up from a thousand foxholes behind us, firing shoulder-level tracers, chains of bright purple lights, toward Jerry's lines on the river. We had to fall on our hands and knees and crawl to escape our own murderous fire.
At the road running parallel to the river, I shouted an inaudible "Good luck!" and ran down the road to the first house in Roerdorf. I was in the cellar in nothing flat. It turned out to be the headquarters of the combat engineers, who are out there in that inferno, trying to put up a pontoon bridge. Meanwhile the first wave of the infantry is crossing in boats -- in all of them except boat No. 13.
Colonel Robert Anderson of Boise, Idaho, is the commander of the327th Engineers, who are doing this job and whose headquarters this cellar is. Yesterday, when I interviewed him about his plans for the bridges, he was a picture of poise. Now he chain-smokes and drinks mug after mug of hot black coffee. He has a hard job -- probably the hardest job -- to do today. His men must put up the bridges to supply and reinforce the infantry. He must do it on sites zeroed in by German guns for months. The Army Manual says you cannot build a pontoon bridge in a river with a current of more than five miles an hour. The current at Roerdorf is more than six miles an hour.
The bridge in the vicinity of Roerdorf is not doing well to understate the situation. The engineers on the flaming river bank are losing the boats which are to be used as pontoons, and the boats are cruising off down the river. Some of the boats Anderson had loaned to the infantry to use as assault craft have been capsizing in the driving stream and floating off. There is now a shortage of boats for pontoons. Colonel Anderson has sent for more. Meanwhile crews are out farther down along the river, trying to salvage the runaway boats.
Anderson himself has just put on his helmet and gone down to the river bank. His communications are shot to hell. Most of his wires have been cut by German artillery, which is plowing the river bank and the village.
I tried to write this in the medical aid station I just visited down the street. But the little house was overflowing with wounded, and I had to leave.
The floor of the main room was sticky with mixed blood and dust. Men with legs broken and purple were lying on stretchers. There were others with their sides gashed wide open. One man was torn up terribly everywhere. Were it not for the tension, I think I would be sick. Being scared, tired, and confused has some advantages, and this is one of them.