A US Army patrol sets out to get prisoners

An American patrol in the Hurtgen Forest in late 1944.
An American patrol in the Hurtgen Forest in late 1944.

In early October 20 year old Private William Meller had arrived on the borders of Germany and joined I Company, 110th Regiment, 28th Divison as a rifleman. The bitter struggle for the Huertgen Forest was now fully engaged and casualties were mounting. By mid November Meller was Sergeant Squad Leader. He would be taking on even more responsibilities during the next month, before he found himself in the Ardennes in mid December.

For the moment, he like all the men around him were concentrating on surviving. The orders to participate in an 11 man patrol to go out and get prisoners on the 13th Novemember were unwelcome:

There was one thing above all others that an infantryman did not want to hear, and I had just heard it. Very seldom did we catch an enemy sentry by surprise or capture the enemy without someone getting hurt.

Meller describes the composition of the patrol:

We began the patrol formation with two scouts out front. They carried M1 rifles with ammunition bandoliers over their shoulders, and hand grenades. Their job was to lead the patrol and keep it out of trouble. Usually this job fell to first—class privates.

These men commanded respect, and they deserved it. They knew where we were going and would find the best way to get us there. They were the eyes and ears and signaled the leader upon contact with the enemy or when reaching the objective. They reminded me of books I had read about Daniel Boone and how he made his way in the wilderness.

Sometimes the scouts even looked like Daniel Boone. They usually drew enemy fire. This was a dangerous job. Scouts were valuable. When they’re skillful, they’re invaluable. So much depends upon their skill and judgment. We’ve lost many of them.

The platoon guide came next with an M1 rifle, bandoliers, and grenades. Sometimes he followed in the rear. He was the equivalent of an assistant platoon sergeant; they worked closely together. A guide was a staff or technical sergeant who had come up through the ranks. If he had been around for a while, he was a blessing.

Next was the platoon leader, a first or second lieutenant, depending on his longevity. He carried a carbine, a Colt .45, and grenades. The platoon leader was supposed to give the orders and the sergeant saw that they were carried out. The platoon leader and the platoon sergeant were closely allied.

The platoon sergeant was really the key, as he usually had all the combat experience and general know-how. He did his hest to keep the officer out of trouble, which also kept us out of trouble. We learned to depend upon the platoon sergeant.

Infantry platoon sergeants were technical sergeants, highly regarded and worth their weight in gold. He carried an M1 rifle, bandoliers, and grenades. He was our backbone; don’t leave home without one.

The reason for this was simple: a platoon sergeant came up through the ranks. By the time he had earned five stripes, he had had combat experience and been around for some time. He had already heen a squad leader and understood the duties. He had also been a rifleman and knew the hazards. Just the fact that he was still alive spoke for itself.

On the other hand, infantry replacement platoon leaders were usually fresh off the boat with little or no combat experience. They didn’t really know how to stay alive, but they were supposed to lead forty men. When a platoon leader was new, he was a detriment and ripe for the casualty list. If he hung on, he was promoted to company commander. Either way it was a high-turnover job.

As the squad leader, I was next, a buck or staff sergeant, carrying an M1 rifle, bandoliers, grenades, and a knife. At this period during World War II, there was little chance that today’s infantry squad leader had come off the boat with the same grade. A squad leader directed and led eleven men. He was combat experienced and had come up through the ranks, by attrition. Today, we had no assistant squad leader. The combat infantry division was built from the base of competent squad leaders.

The radioman, a private, stayed close to the platoon leader, carried a Colt .45, and hoped he wouldn’t have to use it.

A first—class private or corporal carried a Browning Automatic Rifle. This is a heavy, cumbersome weapon that makes considerable noise when fired. It poured out .3O—caliber bullets similar to a light machine gun. Because of the noise it creates, it often drew enemy fire.

For this reason, some soldiers were reluctant to carry the BAR. But the firepower of this weapon was most welcome in a combat squad. When the enemy heard that noise, they knew exactly what it was and, more so, where it was. This in itself was dangerous. The ammunition carrier, a private, handled the bulky ammunition clips for the BAR man. He also carried a Colt .45 or M1 rifle and was ready to take over if the BAR man went down, which they often did.

In the rear followed any number of riflemen the platoon leader designated. These riemen were privates. They carried M1 rifles, bandoliers, and grenades.

See William F. Meller: Bloody Roads to Germany: At Huertgen Forest and the Bulge–an American Soldier’s Courageous Story of World War II

This may have been how the average US soldiers approached battle. It was not the way of James Spurrier Jr, who was known to the US Army as Junior J. Spurrier because of the way he had filled in his enlistment form in 1940.

On 13th November Spurrier earned a reputation as a “One Man Army” and a Medal of Honor for his role in capturing the town of Achain almost single-handed:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy at Achain, France, on 13 November 1944.

At 2 p.m., Company G attacked the village of Achain from the east. S/Sgt. Spurrier armed with a BAR passed around the village and advanced alone. Attacking from the west, he immediately killed 3 Germans. From this time until dark, S/Sgt. Spurrier, using at different times his BAR and Ml rifle, American and German rocket launchers, a German automatic pistol, and handgrenades, continued his solitary attack against the enemy regardless of all types of small-arms and automatic-weapons fire.

As a result of his heroic actions he killed an officer and 24 enlisted men and captured 2 officers and 2 enlisted men. His valor has shed fresh honor on the U.S. Armed Forces.

US soldiers examine the equipment in a captured German position in the Hurtgen forest.
US soldiers examine the equipment in a captured German position in the Hurtgen forest.

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