The following article appeared in "YANK - The Army Weekly" (Continental Edition), February 18, 1945. Many thanks to Edouard Reniere for providing this information. Mr. Reniere was born in 1938 and lived through the Nazi occupation in Brussels, Belgium. His story of growing up in these times is a remarkable document.
Here's what some of the men of one outfit on the Western front are just now saying about their GI winter equipment, what's good and bad about it, and what can be done to improve it.
By Sgt. Ed CUNNINGHAM
YANK Staff Correspondent
With the 83rd Division in Belgium
The Ardennes campaign was more than a fight against the strongest German attack faced since the early days in Normandy. It was also a fight against almost daily snowstorms, near-zero temperatures and face-freezing winds which doubled the difficulty of rolling back the German advance.
We learned a lot about winter warfare in the Ardennes. Some of it was learned the hard way, by frostbite, hands and feet, pneumonia and bronchial ailments. Besides these physical difficulties, there was trouble with frozen weapons, equipment and even food. But out of it all came the GI's usual improvising of home-made remedies which will be unofficial SOP from now on.
The line company men of the 83rd Division, who cleared the Bois de Ronce of German opposition in a continuous eight-day push that enabled armored spearheads to follow through to the vital St. Vith-Houffalize highway, learned many ways to fight winter weather during that operation. Their methods of keeping themselves moderately warm and dry and their weapons and equipment workable were often makeshift because there was no time to waste on details, but they played an important part in the operation's ultimate success.
T/Sgt. Wilburn McQuinn of Helechawa, Ky., platoon sergeant in the 331st Regiment, used the standard method of frostbite prevention in his platoon by insisting on frequent toe- and finger-clenching exercise to keep blood circulating. But he and his platoon learned some other tricks too.
"Some of the men took off their overshoes and warmed their feet by holding them near burning GI heat rations (fuel tablets) in their fox holes," McQuinn said. "Others used waxed K-ration boxes which burn with very little smoke but a good flame. Both heat and K-ration boxes are also fine for drying your socks and gloves. I also used straw inside my overshoes to keep my feet warm while we were marching. Some of the other men used newspapers or wrapped their feet with strips of blankets or old cloth."
McQuinn's company commander, Capt. Robert F. Windsor of Carthage, N.Y., had another angle on keeping feet warm. "We found our feet stayed warmer if we didn't wear leggings," Capt. Windsor explained. "When they get wet from the snow and then freeze, the leggings tighten up on your legs and stop the flow of blood to your feet. That's true also of cloth overshoes which are tight fits. When snug-fitting overshoes get wet and freeze, they bind your legs. It looks to me like overshoes should be issued two or three sizes larger than the shoes to prevent that."
"Another 'must' in this kind of weather," Capt. Windsor continued, "is to have the men remove their overshoes at night when it's possible. Otherwise these arctic clothes sweat inside and that makes the feet cold. Of course, the best deal is to have a drying tent set up so you can pull the men out of the line occasionally and let them go thoroughly dried out and warm."
The drying tent is nothing more than a pyramidal tent set up in a covered location several hundred yards behind the front with a GI stove inside to provide the heat. An average of seven men at a time can dry their clothes and warm themselves before returning to their fox holes. The process takes from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on how wet men's clothes are. All front-line outfits in the 83rd Division use this method.
Sgt. Estelle Jacoby of Canton, Ohio, set up a stove in his fox hole to protect himself from the frigid temperatures of the Ardennes. First he stretched his shelter half over the fox hole for a roof, leaving a few inches uncovered at one end. Then he rigged up an empty ammunition box as a stove, burning tree branches for fuel. The slight opening at one end served as a smoke escape.
Another 331st man modified Jacoby's plan by stretching a blanket over his hole and using GI heating rations for a stove. The fuel tablets, issued primarily for cooking purposes, come in units of three like D rations. Each third of a unit burns about 15 minutes, throwing off a fair amount of heat. The tablets should be placed in a cup or can near one end of a hole to control the draft. When used for cooking, a fuel tablet is sufficient to heat a can of C rations and a cup of coffee.
Other 83rd men, back far enough to do a little more detailed improvising, found that a pretty fair stove can be made by cutting the top off unuseable jerricans and adding an 81-mm mortar tube as a stove pipe. The same procedure works well with old gasoline drums which throw enough heat to make a cellar room quite comfortable.
Because the 83rd's front-line troops were advancing almost continuously, it was all but impossible to get sleeping bags and straw up to them. In place of straw, the men used branches of trees as matting for their fox holes. Logs and more branches were used as roofs to protect them from tree bursts. GI pioneer tools, including axes and saws, were issued to each outfit for such fox-hole construction work. Raincoats, overcoats and GI blankets were used for covers. Two or three men slept in each hole, close enough so that they could pool their blankets. Some slept in their helmets as an extra measure of warmth.
The chief difficulty about carrying your own blankets was that they got wet with snow and froze, making them hard to roll and heavy to carry. GI overcoats also became water-logged after several days in snow and slush. Some of the more frigid nights the men abandoned any hope of sleep, walking around and exercising all night to keep them from freezing.
The front-line troops of the 83rd were issued a dry pair of socks each day. But wading through icy streams and plodding through knee-deep snow rifts often meant two or three pairs of socks would become soaked within a few hours. In such cases, the men wrung out their socks thoroughly and places them inside their shirts or under their belts, where the body heat gradually dried them out. Another method was to put the socks under blankets and sleep on them at night.
"When we waded through those streams and snow drifts, our pants sometime got wet clear up to the knees," S/Sgt. Leslie C. Haessley, squad leader from St. Paul, Minn., said. "For a while our legs would be almost numb. Then the pants would freeze solid and they'd be a sort of a wind breaker for us and keep us a little warmer. But when it warmed up, the pants would thaw out and then we'd get numb all over again. Another thing that bothered us was that we couldn't always take off our wet shoes at night. If we did, and didn't have time to dry them out before we went to sleep, they'd be frozen stiff in the morning and we couldn't get them on."
Some of the men preferred to let their pant legs drop outside their overshoes to keep the snow out. All agreed the cloth overshoes are not very good for snow fighting since they soak through easily and then freeze stiff, which makes them difficult to take off. The men are convinced rubber overshoes are better than the cloth type of footwear.
Marsh lands in some sections of the Bois de Ronce added to the infantrymen's troubles. When digging in for the night, they hit water two feet down. That meant two or three inches would accumulate in their holes before they were ready to go to sleep, forcing them to move around gingerly on the branches to avoid sinking into the water. One night an 83rd platoon had to dive in muddy fox holes when a German tank came along the forest path spraying MG bullets. By the time the tank retreated, every man in the platoon had the front of his field jacket and pants, and shoes and socks thoroughly soaked. The enemy pressure that night was so strong that none of the dripping soldiers could be spared to go back to the drying tent. They spent the entire night in wet clothes, with the temperature less than 10 above zero.
The chief complaint of the front-line troops concerns their white snow capes. Everybody says the capes are too loose-fitting, catching on nearby branches and ripping or forcing the men to take time out to unhook themselves. The thin fabric soaks up rain and melted snow very quickly. Then when the capes freeze up, "they rattle like a bunch of tin," making them unfit for use where strict silence is necessary, one recon patrolman explained. A few units managed to get bedsheets and other white cloth from nearby villagers, but most outfits operated without any camouflage at all when their issue capes proved impractical.
The standard GI gloves also were unsatisfactory for winter fighting, the 83rd men reported. When wet, they froze up and prevented the free movement of the fingers. Nor were they very durable, wearing out within a few days under the tough usage they got in the forest fighting. When their gloves wore out, many of the men used a spare pair of socks as substitutes.
Most of the infantrymen wore impregnite hoods from their impregnated clothing to keep snow from dropping down their necks. Others found that a GI towel makes an excellent muffler or even a set of ear cuffs when wrapped around the head under the helmet. Still another improvisation was the use of sleeping bags as combat suits. To make sure their available at all times, some of the men cut leg holes in them and drew the bags up tight like a pair of combat jumpers. During the day, the bags made warm uniforms; at night, they served their original purpose as sleeping bags. Web equipment was a problem. It froze solidly on cold nights and had to be beaten against trees in the morning to make it pliable enough for use.
"Another headache was the water freezing in our canteens," S/Sgt. Otho B. Upchurch, platoon guide from Dahlgren, Ill., said. "The canteens swelled up because of the ice and it was hard to get them out of the canteen covers. Most of the guys took their canteens to bed with them and kept them under their blankets so they wouldn't freeze."
Frozen weapons were one of the most dangerous aspects of winter warfare in the Ardennes. Automatic weapons were the chief concern although some trouble was also experienced with M-1 rifles and carbines. Small arms had to be cleaned twice daily because of the snow and none of the larger guns could be left unused for any length of time without freezing up.
"The M-1s were okay if we kept them clean and dry," T/Sgt. Albert Runge of Boston, Mass., a platoon sergeant, explained. "You had to be careful not to leave any oil on them or they would freeze up and get pretty stiff. But you could usually work it out quickly by pulling the bolt back and forth a few times. Sometimes the carbines got stiff and wouldn't feed right but you could always work that out too." However, during the fighting at Petit Langlier, Pvt. Joseph Hampton found himself in a spot where he had no time to fool around with these methods. Just as his outfit started into action, Hampton found ice had formed in the chamber of his M-1. With no time to waste, Hampton thought and acted fast. He urinated in the chamber, providing sufficient heat to thaw it out. Not five minutes later he killed a German with his now well-functioning rifle. Hampton's company commander vouches for that story.
"The BARs gave us the most trouble," Runge said. "They froze up very easily when not in use. The ice formed in the chamber and stopped the bullet from going all the way in, besides retarding movement of the bolt. We thawed them out by cupping our hands over the chamber or holding a heat ration near it until it let loose. Most of the automatic weapons were okay too. after you worked them a few times manually, and we never did have any trouble with the grease guns."
The commo men of the 83rd had plenty of headaches in the Ardennes fighting. Their breath vapors wet the inside of their radio mouthpieces and then froze up, cutting off transmission of their speech. Most of the time, the mikes were thawed out by cupping hands over them or placing them under sweaters. However, Pfc. Frank Gaus of Pittsburgh, Pa., solved the problem by inserting a piece of cellophane inside the mouthpiece to prevent moisture accumulating there.
Other communication difficulties were experienced when radio batteries froze up and went dead. The Signal Corps wire maintenance crews were kept on 24-hour-duty repairing lines torn out when tanks and other vehicles slid off the icy roads ripping out phone wires. Written messages often couldn't be sent from the front to rear because intense cold made writing difficult. Pfc. Arthur Hall, a company runner from Richmond, Va., reported platoon leaders had to use radio instead of written code messages because their fingers were too numb to use the slidex.
Winter warfare also hampered the medics a lot. Snow drifts made their litter-bearing jobs doubly difficult, and the severe cold caused morphine syrettes and blood plasma to freeze. The medics kept the syrettes under their armpits, thawing them out with body heat. When stoves were not available to melt the frozen plasma, they stuck it under the hood of a jeep whose motor was running. Slippery roads and snow-drifted fields often stymied the jeeps, halftracks and tanks that had been pressed into service to haul supplies and evacuate wounded. Some units improvised crude toboggans, taking strips of tin from shell-shattered roofs and using two-by-four planks as runners.
However, according to one company commander, Capt. Marion B. Cooper of Hillsboro, Ind., the Army's M-29 "weasel" or "doodlebug" is the most effective snow vehicle. "Every rifle company should have its own doodlebug," Capt. Cooper said. "They're the only vehicles we had that could buck those roads and snowdrifts without getting mired down and causing the loss of valuable time and, more important, the lives of seriously wounded men."
Even mess sergeants had their troubles with winter warfare. Sgt. Joseph L. Ornge of St. Louis, Mo., left his pancake batter sitting for an hour one morning while he went off to load a hot-chow jeep headed for the front-lines. When he came back, his batter was frozen stiff. He had to thaw it out with hot milk.
Sgt. Ornge used straw, shelter halves and blankets to wrap around the marmite cans which carried hot food to the men up front. That was the only way he could keep food and coffee warm during the frigid drive up from the battalion mess hall.
But even winter warfare has its better side: the men of the 83rd found they could occasionally cross snow-covered German mine fields without accident. Melted snow, seeping down around the firing pins and then freezing up when the temperature fell at night, prevented some of the mines from detonating, and the chemicals in other mines turned to an icy mush that also failed to go off.
Amid all the misery of the Ardennes, that was the only compensation.
NOTE: The original article that appeared in Yank included three photographs. Although these photos are not available, the captions are included below:
"This is typical Western Front camouflage for a 105 howitzer, half but never completely hidden in the deep, drifted snow."
"Cpl. Roy Jordan of Bessemer, Ala., digs in for the night in the Ardennes Forest. Jordan later covered the hole with logs."
"In this typical early-morning scene T-5 Nicholas Esposito of Jersey City (left) and T-4 Charles L. Lynch of Boston attempt to tear their icy bedrolls from the frozen ground."