Lieutenant Compton’s last day as a combat officer.
This is the seventh in a series of posts on the story of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Brigade during World War Two. I’m posting this on the anniversary of Easy Company’s action at Bastogne, 70 years ago. I have the book Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose, but it’s easiest for me to follow the narrative through the HBO mini series of the same name. The images are from the History Channel’s syndication release.
The 506th, as part of the 101st Airborne Division, jumped into Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944, and was taken off the line and back to England after six weeks. In September they went into Holland as part of Operation Market-Garden. It was their last combat jump of the war. After ten weeks they were pulled off the line for rest and refitting, but on 18 December they loaded onto trucks and drove into Bastogne, Belgium, to stymie the German attack in what was to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The heroic defense by the 101st became one of the legends of the American military. By 2 January 1945 the 101st was obtaining resupply and air support. It was time to push back against the Hitler’s army. Airborne troops had earlier pulled back from Noville, to the northeast of Easy Company’s defensive position. Before initiating attacks on the village of Foy, and then Noville beyond, troops of the 506th had to clear the cultivated woods, the Bois Jacques, to their right.
Band of Brothers page 9
Winters called out the command, “Move out!” The men began the advance. Moving in those dense woods was an exhausting process under the best of circumstances, completely so when carrying rifles, machine-guns, mortars, grenades, knives, ammunition, and rations. The struggle to get through caused the body to sweat profusely, which was not a problem until one stopped ; after a few minutes the wet underclothing could chill the body to the bone. Immediately upon plunging into the woods, contact between platoons, even squads, sometimes even man to man, was lost. The snow and trees absorbed the noise so that even the clank of equipment, a sign that the men on each side were advancing with you, was absent. The sense of isolation coupled with the feeling of tension to create a fearful anticipation of the inevitable enemy response. Machine-gun fire from directly in front hit E Company. Simultaneously, supporting American artillery began to whine over the heads of the men . Immediately German artillery fired back, but not as counterbattery; the German shells were landing in and on the paratroopers. As quickly as it started , the firing ceased. In Sergeant Christenson’s analysis, “The denseness of the woods was a bewilderment and confusion to the Krauts, whose visibility was no better than ours. Had they known that two battalions were moving toward their position in giant skirmish lines, the shelling and machine-gun fire would have been much more intense.”
Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 310-311). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Easy Company plans the attack
Advance through the woods
As American forces took up positions in the Bois Jacques the Germans responded with artillery and air attacks. While the trees provided concealment, they provided little protection. Shells that hit the trees sprayed fragments on the men taking cover in foxholes. Direct hits on fighting positions were deadly. Sergeants Guanere and Toye each lost a leg to German shells and ended their fighting days there in the woods. Less fortunate, were others.
On January 9 the company participated in the clearing operation in the woods west of Foy. Resistance was light. The company reached its objective and dug in.
Suddenly a shell burst in the trees, then another and another. They kept coming. Cpl. George Luz was caught out in the open. He began racing toward his foxhole. Sergeant Muck and Pvt. Alex Penkala called out to him to jump in with them, but he decided to get to his own and with shell bursts all around, splinters and branches and whole trees coming down, made it and dived in.
Lipton was sharing a foxhole with Sgt. Bob Mann, the Company HQ radio man. The Germans sent over some mail. A shell that was a dud hit just outside their foxhole. Lipton looked at it. Mann lighted a cigarette. Lipton had never smoked, but he asked for one, and that night had his first cigarette.
Luz went to check on Muck and Penkala, the men who had offered to share their foxhole with him. The hole had taken a direct hit. Luz started digging frantically. He found some pieces of bodies and a part of a sleeping bag.
Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 324-325). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
A German soldier who blundered into the American position on horseback was taken down by Corporal Don Hoobler. The TV episode shows Hoobler taking a souvenir Luger pistol from the dead soldier, but the book has a different account.
Hoobler was in a state of exhilaration after shooting a man on horseback. He moved from one position to another, hands in his pockets, batting the breeze with anyone who would talk. In his right-hand pocket he had a Luger he had picked up on the battlefield. A shot rang out. He had accidentally fired the Luger. The bullet whet [sic] through his right thigh, severing the main artery. In great pain, Hoobler rolled about the ground, crying out for help. Private Holland, the 1st platoon medic, tried to bandage the wound. Two men carried Hoobler back to the aid station, but he died shortly after arrival.
Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 314). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The last moments of a German officer
Corporal Hoobler’s fatal souvenir
Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton was particularly close to the men under him, and these loses took all the fight out of him. An iconic image from this episode show’s Compton’s breaking point. He takes off his helmet and drops it onto the snow-covered ground.
After the nightmare of Bois Jacques came the attack on Foy and along with it the fateful issue of Lieutenant Norman Dike. Seemingly forced on Easy Company, Dike had no ability as a combat officer, least of all a company commander. His assignment to lead Easy Company in the attack on Foy produced a minor mutiny among the troops under him. Richard Winters, now a major in charge of Second Battalion, could do nothing to remedy the situation. Disaster loomed.
Attack on the village of Foy
The attack on the small Belgian village was a frontal charge across open ground. There was no recourse but to keep moving until the objective was reached. Any pause would give the Germans targets to shoot at with rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. Here is where Lieutenant Dike failed completely.
Dike looked left and could not see his 1st platoon. His other two platoons were moving forward steadily. They were being fired on but had not taken any casualties. But Dike was naked on his left, or so he thought. He made a disastrous decision, the kind of decision that gets men killed. He signaled for the 2d and 3d platoons to join Company HQ section behind two haystacks.
From Winters’s point of view: “Suddenly the line stopped about 75 yards from the edge of the village. Everybody hunkered down in the snow behind those stacks and stayed there for no apparent reason. I could not get any response from Lieutenant Dike on the radio. The company was a bunch of sitting ducks out there in the snow.” He worried about how long he could keep up the suppressing fire.
Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 330). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Winters sent Lieutenant Spiers in to relieve Dike. The dramatization shows him running through bursts from German shells and confronting Dike to tell him that his days as a combat officer were over.
Lieutenant Spiers races into the battle
Lieutenant Norman Dike’s final moment as a combat officer
Once in the fight, Spiers quickly assessed the situation. A principal problem was the loss of contact with other units. When troops of Easy Company revisited the battle field in 1991 they recalled some of the memorable events:
Standing at the site in 1991 with Winters and Malarkey, Lipton remembered Speirs’s dash. He also recalled that when they got to the outbuildings of Foy, Speirs wanted to know where I Company was. “So he just kept on running right through the German line, came out the other side, conferred with the I Company C.O., and ran back. Damn, that was impressive.”
Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 335). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Lieutenant Spiers runs through the German line
The TV dramatization shows a sniper attacking Easy Company following their victory and while a newsreel camera was capturing the celebrations. The book is likely more true to life:
Resistance was strong, even so. German snipers, bypassed in the first rush, began to inflict casualties. No one could locate one guy especially, who had stopped movement at a corner with two hits. Then Shifty Powers, the man who had spent so much of his youth spotting for squirrels in the upper tree trunks of the Virginia mountains, called out, “I see ’em” and fired. “We weren’t pinned down anymore,” Lipton remembered, “so we continued the attack.”
Everyone resumed firing and advancing. Strong as the opposition had been, the Germans— the 6th Company of the 10th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 9th Panzer Division— were only fighting a rear-guard action to cover a withdrawal to Noville. Still they fought tenaciously, skillfully, and without panic to keep the escape route open. But as Speirs moved his men forward, and threatened to cut the road behind the German position, three Tiger tanks lumbered off, all that was left of the panzer company. A platoon or so of infantry got out with them. Some 100 Germans, mostly wounded, surrendered. Easy Company had won the test of will. It had taken Foy.
Lipton and Popeye Wynn looked at the place where the sniper had held them up, the one Powers shot at. They found the sniper with a bullet right in the middle of the forehead. “You know,” Wynn commented, “it just doesn’t pay to be shootin’ at Shifty when he’s got a rifle.”
Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 336-337). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Private Shifty Powers takes out a sniper
The dramatization does not dwell on Easy Company’s subsequent attack on Noville. However, this action was accomplished with Lieutenant Speirs as company commander.
Lieutenant Spiers recalls those lost
In Rachamps , Speirs set up company CP in a convent. It was the first time the CP had been in a building since Easy left Mourmelon a month earlier. That night the nuns brought into the large hall of the convent a group of twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls to sing a serenade for E Company. The program included French and Belgian songs, several in English, and the German marching song, “Lili Marlene.”
The next morning, January 17, the 17th Airborne Division relieved the 101st on the line. Easy Company got into trucks to begin a move to Alsace. The trucks took the men back down the highway they had sat astride for four weeks, through Bastogne. It was only the second time most of the men had seen Bastogne— first on December 19 when they marched through the town while frightened American soldiers fled to escape the German onslaught, second on January 17, the town secured.
Although the men had seen little of Bastogne, that name— and the experience it represented— would stay with them forever. Whenever thereafter a man from Easy experienced cold or hunger or sleep deprivation, he would remind himself of Bastogne and recall that he had been through much worse.
Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 350-351). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
The dramatization gets creative in its depiction of the after action scene in the convent. It shows a choir singing as the camera pans the pews with soldiers sitting in silence. Images of the fallen are among those of the living, and those images fade as Lieutenant Speirs’ narration mentions their names. The choir is singing. I don’t know the words, but the tune is Plaisir d’amour. It’s a classical French love song from the 18th century, and it was resurrected and made famous 16 years later by another American G.I. as Can’t Help Falling in Love.
The 101st pulls out of Bastogne
A modern day view from Google Maps shows considerable change in the 70-year-old battle field. Gone apparently is much of the notorious Bois Jacques.
The battleground as it is today
Bastogne was the last pitched battle of the war for Easy Company. People would be killed as the 101st moved into Germany in the weeks to come, but most were beginning to get the idea they would survive the war, as was the case.