Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, 1944: more dreary freezing rain saturated the Hurtgen forest. Rhineland rivers overflowed their banks, and U.S. Army vehicles skidded on muddy roads. War-weary 26th Regiment infantrymen — many of whom had been in near-constant combat since the Normandy landing in June — spent this soggy day crouched in their foxholes, as always, on alert.
Also on this day, several combat patrols captured exhausted German soldiers willing to be taken prisoner and shipped out to the comfort and protection of one of 511 POW camps in America. The prisoners were brought to the company command post, where they were temporarily put to work as stretcher bearers hauling numerous American dead and wounded to evacuation vehicles.
Before those on patrol returned to their foxholes, they were instructed to spread the word that every GI on the line would receive a hot turkey dinner. Most of the GI’s didn’t even realize it was Thanksgiving.
Hoping to boost sagging morale, Mess Officer Howard Wilcox oversaw the roasting of hundreds of turkeys with all the trimmings. Frightened cooks and bakers unaccustomed to perilous front-line duty delivered them to every foxhole.
Since the Germans and Americans positions were in close proximity, the slightest noise provoked gun or mortar fire from the Germans. Not surprisingly, the noisy movement from foxhole to foxhole attracted enemy fire; indeed, several of the regiment’s cooks and bakers were killed or wounded while delivering the meals.
For at least two weeks since the regiment’s arrival from their victory at Aachen, these men had subsisted on K & C rations and D bars, but today they received a bag with a thick turkey sandwich crammed with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce. These sandwiches were devoured in seconds, with every fleck of meat and gravy thoroughly licked off grimy hands. Each bag also contained a piece of cake and a fat cigar.
One can hardly imagine how much pleasure these men derived from this meal, how truly thankful they must have been for this momentary reprieve from battle. For some, it must have been the most memorable Thanksgiving of their lives, and for many, it was the last Thanksgiving of their lives.
Six days later, Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, commanding general of the First U.S. Army, impatient for a decisive victory in the Hurtgen, ordered the regiment’s second battalion to attack well-defended German positions and take the town of Merode. Hodges brazenly ignored subordinates’ counsel: first, that vital tank and close air support would be forfeited by the muddy roads and the forest canopy; second, that the forest could viably be skirted, allowing direct seizure of the Roer River dams — a strategy that would also have revealed and disrupted the Germans’ final staging for their Ardennes’ offensive.
“E” and “F” companies were positioned within the forest perimeter on either side of a narrow road. After artillery rained on Merode, the two companies would charge down the open fields while tanks would file in single order down the trail. Unfortunately, the two companies were shredded by accurate mortar, cannon and machine gun fire, and the tanks were rendered useless when Germans knocked out the first and last tank in file and then destroyed those in the middle. Only 12 men from the two companies were not killed, wounded or captured.
Former commander in chief of the United States Southern Command, retired four-star Gen. Paul F. Gorman, mentioned (during his lecture on an October 2001 battlefield tour) that the GIs should have been using the cover of the trail while the tanks, cannon blazing, should have attacked down the open field. He also thought the entire Hurtgen campaign was a tragic waste of experienced, battle-hardened veterans — a belief powerfully underscored in Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers.”
The “Battle of the Hurtgen Forest” is not widely known, though it was the longest single battle of the war. It lasted 90 days with staggering losses: more than 33,000 combat casualties and another 9,000 victims of trench foot, disease or combat exhaustion. It was a defensive victory for the Germans because it ensured the element of surprise for their Ardennes offensive. The “Battle of the Bulge” occurred two weeks after the Merode debacle.
Personal note: As I settle down to my Thanksgiving dinner this year, I plan to reflect on the bagged turkey dinner relished by the men of the 26th Infantry Regiment as they sat in their frigid foxholes 75 years ago. I will also reflect on the terror and sorrow that lay before them six days later. Finally, I will reflect on, and cherish, the memory of my brave uncle, who enjoyed one of those turkey dinners, and who was six days’ later wounded and captured in Merode, imprisoned until the end of the war.