Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

No Retreat: The Battle of Lanzerath 1944

How this research began…

I don’t consider myself an expert on the “Battle of the Bulge.” The campaign is dense and eventful. But I thought I knew enough to elevate me beyond the ranks of battle hound. Then I read Alex Kershaw’s “The Longest Winter” and discovered the actions of the Intelligence & Reconnaissance Platoon of the 394th Infantry. As with some of my work, this post is centered around a map of the engagement. During the course of the research, I discovered that two of the GIs (PFC Bill James of White Plains, NY and PFC Risto Milosevich of Los Angeles, CA) were students of my alma mater, Tarleton State (Texas A&M). Good to know.


Lanzerath, 16 December 1944. The initial situation

A shortage of manpower in the US military at the twilight of World War II meant that some of the best and brightest college students in the United States who were training to be experts and officers were instead reassigned to frontline units in 1944 as enlisted men. 

As members of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), the draftees were supposed to be a university-trained cadre of high-grade technicians and specialists. Instead, on 1 April 1944, most were reassigned to infantry, airborne and armored combat units. Several such men found themselves in a so-called Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon of the US 394th Infantry Regiment in the maelstrom of the European theater of combat in the winter of 1944. 

The second week of December 1944 found this platoon on an unremarkable hilltop overlooking the Ardennes village of Lanzerath, a few thousand yards from the German frontier. In command was First Lt. Lyle Bouck Jr, just 20 years old but not an ASTPer. Instead, he was a pre-war army volunteer who had risen through the ranks to become an officer. Neither he nor his men suspected that they had an engagement with history.

I&R platoons were supposed to have men with above intelligence. Each division in the US army from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1950s had at least one I&R platoon within regimental headquarters companies. The Table of Organization & Equipment (TO&E) authorized 25 troops by 1944 plus seven ¼-ton vehicles (jeeps).

One of the 105,000 ASTP trainees to be reassigned to combat divisions was the postwar giant of postmodernism, Kurt Vonnegut, who was sent to the doomed 106th Infantry Division. Like the men of the I&R Platoon in the 394th Regiment, Vonnegut was also an I&R member, of the 423rd Regiment.

The I&R platoons consisted of a headquarters and three reconnaissance squads. The platoon headquarters had one jeep while each squad had three jeeps, some of which carried radios. The soldiers were all trained as infantrymen but they operated as scouts. 

Regimental S-2 trained the men further in reconnaissance and information gathering methods.

The army’s FM 7-25 field manual described the main function of the I&R platoon as being the eyes and ears of the regimental commander. Their tasks were to gather information about enemy forces and reconnoiter terrain not readily accessible to infantry units. They were also supposed to provide early warning to the regiment about enemy forces, regain lost contact with adjacent, attached and assigned friendly units and identify the flanks of hostile forces. Another role was to search undefended or captured towns and villages, and inspect captured enemy equipment and positions.

When the 394th’s I&R Platoon moved to Lanzerath on 10 December 1944, their orders partly exceeded the mandate of such platoons. For one, their deployment was the act of plugging a gap in the lines and in a veritable no-man’s land between not only US divisions but also two American corps. 

A GI in the Ardennes looks for signs of trench foot. (NARA)

Their parent unit, the US 99th Infantry Division, was a rookie to the wilds of the western European campaign. It had arrived on the continent on 6 November 1944, having missed the Normandy campaign and the advances of the western front. Its inexperience was exacerbated by the fact that it was forced to string out its three infantry regiments (393rd, 394th and 395th) across nearly a 25-mile front in the Ardennes dominated by forest-covered hills.

US army doctrine stipulated that a battalion cover 800 yards of a frontline. But the 99th’s nine infantry battalions were covering between 2,500 to 3,000 feet. This made it near impossible for patrols to cover the gaps.

By 14 November, all of the 99th’s battalions and companies were in line barring the 3d Battalion of the 394th Infantry, which was held in a divisional reserve, near the boundary with US V and VIII Corps, near the so-called “Losheim gap” – a particularly thinly held part of the frontline.

With only two battalions under his command, the commander of the 394th Infantry, Colonel Don Riley, had to scramble to plug potential holes in his perimeter. One worry was the village of Lanzerath which commanded a road leading westwards deep into American lines. The village was the responsibility of the neighboring VIII Corps and the US 14th Cavalry Group. 

However, there was no combat unit available to occupy the village in force and so Riley employed the I&R platoon to provide advanced warning of a German attack from that area.

“Our I&R Platoon was ‘temporarily’ moved into the resulting gap with orders to investigate and report any observed enemy activity,” recalled a former platoon member, Private G Vernon Leopold to Congress in 1981.

First Lt. Bouck (sitting in jeep) with some of the men in his platoon before the battle.

The village was problematic. Although Belgian by map, it was a hotbed of German sympathizers. 

The platoon took over the dugouts prepared by the men of the US 2nd Infantry Division, which had exited the area to prepare for an attack on the Roer River dams to the north. The dugouts were located at the edge of a heavily wooded area to the west and north of Lanzerath. The position was approximately one-half mile outside the 99th Division’s sector boundary.

Lanzerath was on sloping terrain, with a draw to its east. The location of the I&R Platoon on the high ground gave it a stellar view of the landscape leading to Germany in the east. However, the platoon did not have its full strength. Some seven platoon members were posted to the regimental command post at Hunningen or were sent back to the rear after they developed health problems such as trench foot.

Within the village itself, about 400 yards to the right of the platoon along the southern edge of Lanzerath was a 55-man detachment from the 820th Tank Destroyer Battalion, including recon troops from the 14th Cavalry Group. The tank destroyer unit, 1st Platoon, “A” Company, had four towed anti-tank guns.

Also in the village was a four-man team of American artillery observers from C Battery, 371st Field Artillery. The team was holed up in a three-story house in Lanzerath, which gave them a view, down a valley, of the distant town of Losheim.

The closest American combat unit in strength was the 1st Battalion of the 394th Regiment, located nearly 800 to 1,000 yards to the north, at Losheimergraben.

The platoon had managed to acquire a surplus of unauthorized weaponry beyond their standard complement of 23 M1 Garand semi-automatic rifles and two carbines. These included several Browning automatic rifles (BARs), anti-tank bazookas, a .30-caliber light machine gun and a armored Jeep with a 0.50 caliber heavy machine gun. The men also had a large number of grenades plus excess ammunition.

The men began to reinforce the hilltop position with four or five-inch logs, cemented together with mud and dirt. This allowed them to withstand mortar and small-arms fire. The dugouts were expanded to allow two men to stand on the ground with their line of vision being on level with slit openings created for their weapons. Bouck and his men created overlapping fields of fire. The Jeep with the machine gun was placed in defilading position, which allowed it to sweep the field in front of the village.

An armored jeep with a 0.50 Calibre machine gun similar to the type of jeep procured by Bouck for the platoon. (Modified from 2019 artwork for Takom static display plastic model)

The fields ahead were bisected by a farm fence about four feet high. It was a natural aiming point. The Americans zeroed their weapons to this fence.

“We were placed into well-concealed positions on a wooded crest of a ridge which overlooked a clear slope down to and beyond a road which connected Lanzerath to our right and immediately south, and Losheim somewhere off to our left and north,” Leopold said.

A bitter cold wind interspersed with periods of snowfall prevailed in the area. A storm blanketed the area with four to five inches of snow, camouflaging the positions.

The platoon set trip wires linked to empty cans file with rocks to detect infiltrators. Patrols then went into Lanzerath. Members of the platoon not on guard rested in a log cabin built approximately 390 to 400 feet back. Twice daily, Private Oakley would drive in with food, supplies and mail from the regimental headquarters at Hunningen by jeep.

The sector appeared quiet – until the night of 14 December when there was a spurt of heavy artillery fire to the north. Another platoon from the 99th Division reported hearing the noise of armored vehicles and heavy equipment. This was reported to the regimental headquarters.

Bouck as a sergeant in the army’s 35th Infantry Division in 1940. He enlisted with the Missouri National Guard in 1936 at 14. The money he made aided his family which had been struck by the great depression. By 16, he was a Supply Sergeant. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he was offered a spot in Officer Candidate School. He graduated in August 1942, in the top 10 of his class.

The morning of December 16 began ordinarily enough. At Lanzerath, Lt. Bouck observed the snow, two to four feet deep, covering the fields, extending for 200 yards from his platoon foxholes to the most peripheral house in the village.

The day was cold, the temperature in the low 30s. The wind chill exacerbated a biting wind. Fog had rolled out in front of the platoon area.

At 5.25 am, a fierce artillery barrage tore into the American lines across the whole northern front, pummeling the landscape until nearly 7 am. The men of I&R platoon cowered in their dugouts. For the four-man team of American artillery observers, the display of German firepower was a discomfiting demonstration of their trade.

The team commander, Lt. Warren Springer of the 371st Field Artillery would say later that although there had been increased German shelling in the area around Losheim before 16 December, nothing prepared them for the intensity of the enemy barrage.

“The area in front of our observation post was blackened by a concentration of artillery shells that had fallen short by about fifty yards. The concentrated pattern made it clear that the enemy knew that the house was used as an observation post,” Springer said.

He abruptly remembered a Belgian civilian whom he had confronted the other day for acting suspiciously. It seemed now that this man had passed on their location to the Germans.

Some of the men of the 371st Field Artillery. Two of the four-man team of artillery observers who were in Lanzerath during the attack are in this image: Standing fifth from left is Corporal Billy Queen. First on left in the middle row is Sgt. Peter Gacki. (From Hans Wijer’s The Loshiem Gap, Volume 1)

At about this time, German troops of the 9th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division were advancing westwards. Their objective was to clear a series of villages to allow the armor of the elite 1st SS Panzer Division to race for the distant Meuse river which was a critical objective.

The activities of the Fallschirmjäger reflected the forward point of clear, if not fantastical orders handed to the German Sixth Panzer Army under SS General Sepp Dietrich.

It was to advance for a hundred miles through the Ardennes to reach the port city of Antwerp.The timetable was rigid. 

On the first day, Dietrich was to shatter the American lines and break out into the landscape beyond. On the second day, the sixth army was to get mobiIe units past the restricted terrain in the 99th Division’s rear. By the evening of the third day, the army had to be at the Meuse River. A bridge was to be secured across the river by the fourth day to cross the river.

The schedule was, in part, inspired by the successful dash of the late Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division in the 1940 blitzkrieg. Rommel had reached the Meuse by nightfall on the third day of his advance. But conditions in the winter of 1944 differed from the spring Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Dietrich did not mince words in private.

“All Hitler wants me to do is to cross a river, capture Brussels, and then go on and take Antwerp! and all this in the worst time of the year through the Ardennes where the snow is waist deep and there isn’t room to deploy four tanks abreast let alone armored divisions! Where it doesn’t get light until eight and it’s dark again at four and with reformed divisions made up chiefly of kids and sick old men and at Christmas!”

The German paratroopers at the point of the German advance were elite on paper but their leadership would prove deficient. 

At the village of Hüllscheid, on the way to Lanzerath, a German trooper, PFC Rudi Frühbeisser, remembered his battalion mopping up scattered American resistance.

“To our right the road from Losheimergraben is coming down. So forward on our left. By a row of high firs we proceed with caution. Suddenly a heavy machine gun opens up!”

A famous image of German troops advance past a smashed US Army M8 Greyhound armored car. (IWM EA 48015)

Back at Lanzerath, the shelling died down. It had severed Bouck’s telephone line to the regiment. The sole means of communication was now by SC-300 radio. Bouck called up headquarters using the radio, asking if they could pull out. His CO, Major Robert Kriz instead asked him to send out patrols to determine a possible German ingress.

Major Robert Kriz (Image from William C C Cavanagh, The Battle East of Elsenborn)

As the patrols went out, Bouck and his men were stunned to see the three jeeps and several trucks of “A” Platoon, 801st Tank Destroyer Battalion, which was bivouacked at Lanzerath, tearing off up the road towards Buchholz station, to their rear.

Lt. Springer of the artillery observation team managed to stop one of the vehicles before they fled the village only to be told that a strong German force was advancing up the road. 

The initial German attack into US lines.

Springer immediately called up the divisional fire direction center using his own radio. He asked for shelling of the road 200 yards south of their observation post. But the center responded that no fire was available as they were under small-arms attack. 

A short time later two or three GIs appeared in a jeep and told Springer that they were on their way to a prepared defense position. They advised the observation team to go with them since the Germans were right behind them. 

Springer and his men jumped in their Jeep and followed the men a short distance north on the Lanzerath road. Then the artillerymen turned left and followed a trail which led them straight to the I&R Platoon area.

Elated to see them, the I&R troops directed Gacki, Wibben and Springer to one of the dugouts. The fourth man, Tech 5 (Corporal) Billy Queen was directed to another dugout.

They were just in time. The Fallschirmjäger’s 1st Battalion, 500-men strong, marched into Lanzerath. 

An account by a German paratrooper, PFC Rudi Frühbeisser of the 1st Battalion, 9th Fallschirmjäger Regiment who fought at Lanzerarth, was instrumental in adding a German perspective to the battle. (Image from Hans Weijers, “The Losheim Gap/Holding the Line, Volume 1”)

Bouck called up Major Kriz who ordered the platoon to hold their position and that reinforcements would be sent. 

But Bouck was already missing two men. Slape and Cregar were cut-off on the top floor of a house in the village. German troops barged downstairs but did not detect the men. Slape radioed Bouck about their situation.

Bouck sent McGehee, Silvola, and Robinson across the road, to divert the Germans from Slape and Creger. The party crossed the road, crept along the ditch, to get close to the second house on the left of the village from where they intended to fire on the Germans.

Meanwhile, PFC Bill “Sak” James (nicknamed for his original family name, Taskinakas), monitored the radio with Tech 3 Fort. 

Bouck told his men to hold their fire as some 100 German paratroopers, with their distinctive mottled garb, crossed the platoon ambush point and walked towards the crossroads at Losheimergraben.

There are no known photos of the battle at Lanzerath. Here is a representative image – of two riflemen of G Company, 290 Infantry Regiment, US 75th Infantry Division, cover a frozen field from a foxhole on high ground near Devantave, Belgium. (IWM EA 49158)

To his unease, the German column stopped. As he contemplated firing on them, a 13-year-old girl ran out of a house at the northern end of the village. She shouted something in German to the troopers and appeared to point directly at the American positions.

A German officer barked orders and the paratroopers dove for cover. Cursing, Bouck waited for the girl to return to the house before he ordered the platoon to open fire. A hail of gunfire criss-crossed the 200 yard meadow towards the Germans.

The bullet grazed the German officer, Captain Schiffke. A loud explosion erupted near the Germans who discovered that their 1st, 2nd and 3rd companies had come up against a wall of enemy fire. Soon, paratroopers were toppling with bullet injuries. 

A weapons specialist, Private First Class Federowski, was hit. Seconds later, an American round punched into the thigh of PFC Willi Kölker. Nearby, another PFC, Bradel from Vienna, was killed. 

Meanwhile, Slape and Creger were on the move. Without waiting for the diversion, the men slipped out of the house they were in and fled into a nearby barn. They crawled under some cows and ran towards the woods. 

At about this time, McGehee, Silvola, and Robinson stumbled upon a group of Germans. A firefight erupted. The three Americans would later say that they wiped out the platoon-sized force of Germans before being harried further north up the road towards Losheimgraben. They were cut off from the rest of the platoon.

A wary American soldier runs through the snow-covered woods. The photographer was Tony Vaccaro, an ordinary GI with the US 83rd Infantry Division who took thousands of images using an Argus C3 compact 35mm tucked against his chest with the lens peeping out of an unbuttoned gap in his battle jacket. Vaccaro saw action from Normandy and into Germany. After the war, he became a fashion photographer. (Tony Vaccaro)

In the midst of this carnage, Slape and Creger reappeared in the woods held by the I&R platoon. Slape was ailing. He had fallen while crossing the Lanzerath-Losheimgraben road and had injured his ribs.

German survivors of the 9th Fallschirmjager’s 1st Battalion regrouped with members of the 2nd Battalion for a frontal attack. The renewed German attack went across the open field towards Bouck’s positions. It was a tactical blunder which showed the inexperience of the German commanders, who were ex-Luftwaffe men. 

The paratroopers made it as far as the barbed-wire fence before they were riddled with gunfire.

The commander of the German 6.Kompanie, Captain Theetz, was hit and fell. The crew of an MG42 crew (Lance Corporal Hoffmann, Private First Class Ollermann and Private Jähring) were wiped out moments later – all felled by expert headshots. A bullet smashed into the shoulder of another man, Sgt. Otto Pleie, who happened to be a platoon commander and a veteran of Normandy. At about the same instance, First Lt. Grau of 4.Kompanie, together with two other soldiers (Sgt. Ilk and PFC Weishäupel) were hit and wounded.

Two more paratroopers who attempted to move forward were hit in the head and killed. One was PFC Klein, the leader of a tank killer squad. The other was Private Noak.

Bouck asked Springer if he could bring artillery fire to bear on the Germans. 

“I told him I would try, but they were under attack back in the rear area and might not be able to respond,” Springer remembered later. “I did get through on the radio and asked for artillery fire in front of our position. I was told they would try to give us artillery support as soon as possible, but reinforcements were out of the question.”

Three US infantrymen during the battle of the Bulge wield two Garand M1 rifles and a potent Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) which had excellent stopping power. They are representative of some of the weapons used by the I&R Platoon. (Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)

A short time later some American shells fell in front of the defensive line. Springer called for a correction to get shelling closer to the American positions. When he saw reinforcements and some armored vehicles passing the house which they had used as an observation post, he directed shelling against the main road.

“A few more rounds came in, but they were still too far to the right, and I asked for a further correction. Just then there was a loud crash just in back of our dugout and the noise of shattered glass,” Springer said. “At that point my radio went dead. I don’t know if it was a mortar shell or machine-gun fire that hit our jeep, but I knew that was the end of communication with our firing batteries.”

Springer waited for more American artillery to break up the German attack. He thought he heard shelling in the village. He peeked up over the dugout to see where the shells could be landing. Twigs above his head started dropping from an overhanging tree branch. In horror, Springer realized that bullets were smashing into the tree. 

“Like a turtle, I quickly pulled back into the dugout,” he said.

He waited for more artillery fire to be dropped in the area, but nothing more came. It was likely that men of the fire direction center had thought the team captured as their radio communication had been interrupted abruptly.

By now, McGehee, Silvola, and Robinson, having been cut-off from the platoon, were desperately moving north in the hopes of reaching the 1st battalion at Losheimergraben. 

An American solider watches the frozen landscape. (LIFE/John Florea)

They approached a road bridge spanning the railway line which cut through the landscape from Losheim town to Buchholz station. The bridge had been blown. As they climbed down the 30-40-foot-deep railway cut, troops from the German 12th Infantry Regiment appeared, dressed in all-white winter clothes. The Americans opened fire.

Return fire tore in Robinson’s thigh. Silvola was wounded in the left elbow. The Americans dropped several Germans but there was no possibility of a victory. The three men are captured.

Back at Lanzerath, the German 1.Kompanie was pinned down amid an old German minefield at the edge of the treeline. The German 2.Kompanie tried to storm the woods. A hail of fire rushed out to greet them. A platoon commander, 1st Sgt Karl Quator and several men, Corporal Fischer, Privates Rench, Roth and Private Heube, were killed. A second platoon commander was wounded.

Another man, PFC Hans Winter, a veteran of the Russian front and a card-carrying Nazi, was wounded. A one-time orator in the Nazi party, Winter shrugged off his injury and appeared immune to the heavy American fire. 

“So, Hans, you with your golden party membership badge, are impervious to more than a scratch?” A trooper called to him.

Unfazed, Winter calmly walked back to the village to have his wounded bandaged by a medic. 

A wounded German paratrooper on 16 December 1944, the first day of the Battle of the Bulge. (LIFE/John Florea)

At about this time, Captain Woitschek’s 3.Kompanie was pinned down in the left part of the village. Paratroopers, in their mottled garb, stood out in the dizzying white of the landscape, drawing heavy American small-arms fire.

A volley plunged into a group of paratroopers. A platoon commander, Sgt. Major Schiele, stumbled and collapsed. Someone turned him over and called out: ‘Headshot!’ Two other men, Corporals Mayer and Schmidt are wounded. 

A medic, Corporal Matthieu, ran over to help the wounded. A bullet plunged into his head and he keeled over. A second medic, Corporal Schmidt, who came over to help, was hit in the head. 

A stalemate set in. The second German attack unfurled in the mid-afternoon which only resulted in more casualties among the paratroopers. Their ineptitude was a boon to the American platoon. The Germans made no attempt to maneuver or call in artillery or mortar support.

While Bouck was on the radio with Lt. Bungee back at regimental headquarters, a bullet smashed into the transmitter. Bouck was fortunate. PFC Kalil was less so. As fired from his fortified dugout, a German rifle-fired grenade came flying through the narrow, 18-inch aperture and struck him at the side of the face. The grenade failed to explode but the impact of the projectile fractured Kalil’s jaw and cheekbone, forcing several teeth into the roof of his mouth. 

Private Redmond bandaged Kalil’s face but the pain was soon excruciating. Meanwhile, some distance away, Tech 5 Bill Queen of the artillery observation team had been killed. He was the only defender to die during the battle.

A German paratrooper aims what appears to be an MG13 machine gun taken from a German aircraft. A significant part of the German 3rd FJ division was made up of rear-echelon Luftwaffe personnel. (TRH Pictures)

The Germans asked for a truce. Bouck agreed but in the midst of this ceasefire, PFC Milosevich observed a German medic behaving suspiciously. Mortar fire began landing near his dugout. Convinced this medic was guiding the rounds, Milosevich opened fire, killing the German.

As the fighting resumed, Bouck felt himself in an impossible situation. “The communications were out, ammunition was running low, the wounded increasing, and apprehension running high,” he said. “I told Sak to get Slape, Dustman, and Redmond. Our evaluation was not impressive. We realized heavy fighting was taking place north of us at 1st Battalion and to the northwest where 3rd Battalion was in reserve at Buchholz Station. Later, of course, we learned it was the German 12th Volksgrenadier Division battling the 1st Battalion and the same unit reaching Buchholz Station by way of the railroad cut.”

Realizing they had been cut off from the rest of the division, Bouck told Slape to send Jenkins and Preston back to the regiment or at least to the 3rd Battalion to tell them about the platoon’s plight. Both men set off and were never seen by the platoon again during the war.

By the time the two men reached the regimental headquarters at Hünningen on 18 December, the command post had withdrawn to Elsenborn. Out of ammunition, Jenkins and Preston hid in a hayloft only to be discovered and taken captive by German troops on the following day. 

Meanwhile, back at Lanzerath on the 16th, the Germans attacked the I&R platoon for a third time in the afternoon. At about this time, the platoon’s only heavy ordnance, the .50 caliber heavy machine gun gave out. The barrel was so hot that the gun was already firing on its own. Then, the barrel warped. As dusk approached, Bouck and the rest of the survivors contemplated withdrawal.

But it was too late. Suddenly, the German paratroopers were all around them and in-between them. PFC Bill “Sak” James leaned out of his emplacement and unloaded his last clip at two incoming Germans 20 yards away. Return fire ripped into the emplacement as James ducked for cover. 

The Germans had also summoned two assault guns for support.

The situation at Lanzerath later in the day.

Bouck, who was in the same dug-out with James, saw the barrel of the German automatic weapon probe into their emplacement from behind. He instinctively pushed it away and the gun erupted into life, blasting James at close quarters. 

James slumped, having taken five to six bullets to the right side of his face. Bouck felt himself being grabbed and pulled upwards by a pair of German hands. Another German shone a flashlight down at James and seeing his mangled face, uttered an oath of horror. James’ right side of the face from his nose to his right ear had been torn up. His right eyeball hung from its socket.

With American resistance neutralized, the Germans were finally able to take stock of their dead, the dying and the mauled who lay en masse in the fields. Despite their anguish, the paratroopers made no attempt to exact vengeance on their captives. The prisoners were herded into the Cafe Palm. 

Sgt Peter Gacki of the artillery observation team later said he and Tech 4 Wibben were put to work, carrying German wounded from the top of the hill to the Lanzerath. They looked for the last member of their crew:  Tech 5 Bill Queen. Only later did they learn that Queen had died.

The body would later be found by members of another C battery forward observer party in January 1945.

Bouck was preoccupied with the ailing James who was passing in and out of consciousness. 

“I removed a picture of his girlfriend (Chloe) from his wallet, placed the picture and the bible on his chest and said a few words of prayer, and told him I pledged that we would see each other back in the States. I told him we were being separated now, and placed the picture back in his wallet and put it and his bible in his field jacket pocket, and said, ‘Good-bye.’ He could not speak, but I am certain he heard me, because he squeezed my hand,” Bouck said.

At about midnight, a group of SS panzer officers stormed into the café. Among them was a 29-year-old German Waffen SS lieutenant colonel, whose job it was to seize the bridges over the Meuse river.

SS Obersturmbannführer Jochen Peiper, whose battlegroup comprised 30 King Tiger tanks, 72 medium tanks (some of which were equipped with the then-revolutionary infrared night-vision system), 80 half-tracks, and approximately 4,000 troops, was livid. Peiper’s schedule was rigid. As the lead element of the 1st SS Panzer Division, he should have already been on his way past Hunningen. However, the resistance of the I&R Platoon had created a massive traffic jam from the vehicles and troops of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger and 12th Volksgrenadier Divisions, leading back into Germany. By the time Peiper managed to reach the town of Losheim it was already 7.30 pm.

Urbane and ruthless, Peiper had the key job of reaching the Meuse river bridges. An SS fanatic, he was known for the ability to make profound tactical analyses. However, his military prowess started to wane by 1944. In early August, while in Normandy, he suffered a mental breakdown.

Men from 1st SS Panzer Division ponder their location at the Kaiserbaracke crossroads, between St. Vith and Malmedy on 18 December. The delay caused by the I&R Platoon’s resistance at Lanzerath badly upset the division’s rigid timetable. (IWM EA 47958)

Arriving in Lanzerath shortly before midnight (after losing ten vehicle to an old German minefield), Peiper found a shaken 9th Fallschirmjäger Regiment. To his fury, he soon discovered that the paratroopers had made no attempt to gauge the depth of the American defense in the Lanzerath area. 

Upbraiding Oberst Helmut von Hoffmann, the commander of the 9th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, in full view of the American prisoners and the paratroopers, Peiper demanded that the regiment accompany his tanks as they cleared the sector.

German paratroopers from the 9th Regiment accompany Peiper’s King Tiger tanks as they cleared the area west of Lanzerath. (US National Archives)

Despite witnessing this scene Bouck and his men went into captivity believing that they had achieved little. Little did they know at the time that their resistance had disrupted a major avenue of advance for the Germans while simultaneously protecting the southern flank of the US 394th Regiment. 

In a 1939 US Army book Infantry in Battle, prepared under the direction of the-then Colonel George C Marshall, the authors wrote that in the process of effecting miracles “resolute action by a few determined men is often decisive.” And so, it was with the I&R Platoon.

The platoon’s resistance meant that the 1st SS Panzer Division which was to seize the Meuse river bridges was delayed for a critical 18 hours. This spelt the failure of the advance. Because the platoon had been cut-off, without radio communication, this was a fact which escaped the US Army for the next 22 years.

Postwar historians would later attribute hundreds of German casualties to the platoon. The paratroopers of the 1st Battalion were told that their unit had suffered sixteen killed, sixty-three wounded, and thirteen missing. 

In 1947, Hugh M Cole in his seminal work, The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge, briefly mentioned the platoon but did not discuss their pivotal role. Their story was revealed for the first time in John S D Eisenhower’s 1969 book, The Bitter Woods. But even this did not generate greater interest in the battle.

It was only when James, who had survived the war, perished in 1979, that things began to mobilize. James’ wartime injuries had cut his life short. He died days after his 36th operation.

The death prompted columnist Jack Anderson to write about the bureaucracy which had denied the platoon its just recognition. The pieces attracted the attention of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner who raised the issue with a friend, House Speaker Thomas P O’Neill (D-Massachusetts).

Three years later, a hearing was held in congress in 1981. Following the support of two Presidents, special legislation was passed that allowed the army to circumvent a regulation that recommendations for awards be made within two years of the deed.

The NYT reported that on 9 October 1981 James’ widow accepted a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) on behalf of her late husband. The award was presented on “national television, during a special ceremony arranged by Steinbrenner at Yankee Stadium before the opening game of the American League championship playoffs.”

On 25 October 1981, during a formal ceremony, the remaining 17 combatants of the I&R Platoon were awarded their own medals: three DSCs, five Silver Stars, and ten Bronze Stars with V devices. All four men of the artillery observation team, including the late Billy Queen were also awarded DSCs. The I&R Platoon was also conferred with a Presidential Unit Citation.

Bouck had been awarded a Silver Star (in absentia) while he was a prisoner of war. He, Slape and Milosevich were now among those bestowed with DSCs.

The platoon became the most heavily decorated small unit for a single combat action in World War II.

SOURCES

1. CAVANAGH, William C C, The Battle of Elsenborn Ridge and the Twin Villages, Pen & Sword, 2004.

2. EISENHOWER, John S D, The Bitter Woods: The Battle of the Bulge, Putnam, 1969.

3. KERSHAW, Alex, The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of World War II's Most Decorated Platoon, Penguin, 2015.

4. SPILLER, Roger J. (ed), Combined Arms in Battle since 1939, Chapter 7, Miracles, US Army Command and Staff College Press, 1992.

5. WIJERS, Hans, The Battle of the Bulge: The Losheim Gap/Holding the Line, Volume 1, Stackpole, 2009.

6. GORFAIN, Adam, "The Story of War Hero PFC James. A War Hero Four Decades Later," 8 November 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/08/nyregion/story-of-pfc-william-james-war-hero-four-decades-later.html (Accessed 1 May 2022)

7 responses to “No Retreat: The Battle of Lanzerath 1944

  1. Marco Cillessen May 5, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    Normandy, the Bulge, I woulld love to see Akhil put some effort in doing an article on Market-Garden, especially the 82nd. 🙂

    • Akhil Kadidal May 5, 2022 at 9:41 pm

      Hi Marco, I have never independently researched Market-Garden because there is already some great writing about the campaign – including the masterpiece by Cornelius Ryan.

      Ditto for the maps. There are already so many good, localized maps of the battles in the Arnhem, Nijmegen and Eindhoven sectors published by others.

  2. Anonymous May 10, 2022 at 9:38 pm

    Go Tarleton Texans!

    Another outstanding article. Thanks

  3. nigel June 15, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    Great article…and maps are seriously next level. Good to catch Lanzerath Church which is now in a different location to 1944.

    The FJR.9 was at 70% strength, 2450 men, 1200 of which were “sturm-einheiten.” (Roppelt, auf der Spur). Better shape than 8 or 5 FJR which were at 30%. Happy to send screen shots, amazing book though I need to use translate, a lot!

    • Akhil Kadidal June 15, 2022 at 5:36 am

      Hi Nigel, thanks for your message and your kind comments.

      If you could send the scans to my email address (akhil213@yahoo.com), that would be helpful. A translation would be better!

  4. Livio Cavallaro September 29, 2022 at 11:27 am

    Great article, really! I plan to visit the area later this year. Excellent, superior maps!!

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