In some parts of Northwest European the front was becoming increasingly static, as both sides dug in. The weather and extended supply lines had slowed down the Allied advance. Although the Germans were fighting tenaciously to defend their homeland, Allied intelligence believed they were largely contained. Many believed that the lines would settle down even more over the winter period.
Sergeant Bob Slaughter had landed with the 116th Infantry Regiment on Omaha Beach on D-Day, where they had suffered devastating casualties. They were still in the line, having fought all the way across France. Slaughter had been wounded in France and spent two months recovering in England before rejoining his regiment, along with many more replacements.
Now they found themselves holding an area on the west bank of the River Roer, one of the main natural barriers to Germany before the Rhine itself.
At times, the watch on the Roer was entertaining. One afternoon a large, fully antlered stag gracefully bounded between the American and German outpost lines. Jerry was the first to see the deer and fired at him. Our side also began to shoot.
The agility and grace of the stag’s reaction was amazing. I loos- ened the swivel on one of the machine guns and began traversing, firing freely at the quick-moving target. Both sides then began to fire everything in our two arsenals. I am happy to report that the deer ran through that hail of gunfire unscathed. The final score: deer, a perfect 10, Yanks and Jerry, O.
Most of the German civilians, if they were able, had evacuated the war zone. However, rather than sleeping upstairs in their beds, we preferred the safety of dank basements, where we slept on heaps of dirty straw.
One night, I shared my bed of straw with an unwelcome stranger. I was comfortable and almost asleep when I felt something move under my right shoulder. I was tired and I thought whatever was there would go away. But the visitor made itself at home by crawling over me. I jumped to my feet and lit a kerosene lantern. Lo and behold, there looking me in the eye was the biggest black rat I had ever seen in my life. He was seeking the warmth of my body, and I didn’t have it to give.
“Enough is enough”, I thought. I grabbed my blankets, moved to the second floor of the house, pulled off my filthy clothes, and climbed into a nice, soft German bed. It felt great to lie down in a real bed, and that night I didn’t even care that it was dangerous. Jerry threw a few mortar shells, but I ignored them and slept like a baby.
Outpost guard duty was a dreaded chore that befell us too often. Changing of the guard had to be performed after dark. We almost tiptoed as we made the rounds patrolling or traveling to outpost duty. The single-cart dirt path was under German surveillance during daylight and was zeroed-in night and day. Intermittent mortar and artillery rounds kept us alert as we traveled the road. It was never safe to use the path, even at night. We were told, emphatically, that when a Very light pistol shot was fired, we were to freeze in our tracks. We did as we were told.
On November 26, our side began experimenting with anti-aircraft searchlights as antipersonnel weapons. These powerful sixty-inch, 800-million candlepower units were trained directly at the Germans’ position, blinding them. They were also used to good advantage to reveal the nocturnal movements of enemy troops.
The outpost line, sometimes called the listening post, had to be manned day and night. By continually improving these important positions, we made them more comfortable and less vulnerable to attack. We stockpiled ammo, food, and drink so that, if we were cut off, we might survive until help came. There were too many casualties, but nothing like Normandy. The weather was raw and uncomfortable, but it was December in northern Germany, and we expected it.