CHARLES R. LEE
Master Sergeant | Infantry
Now check your morning reports, you bastards! --Sgt. Richard J. Leonard, M Co.
FORÊT de PARROY
A cheerful German voice crackled from loudspeakers through damp woods near Luneville in early November. "Hello men of the 44th!” They broadcasted cheerfully, “Thanks for relieving the 79th Division. This is going to be a bloody mess!" The 324th Infantry Regiment continued with their work and tried to become more comfortable in the cold and rain. They had taken up positions amid trenches leftover from World War I, overgrown and softened from years of erosion and neglect. Now the land bore fresh scars from foxholes and craters from a new era of war. The GIs laughed at the German’s attempts to persuade surrender, and would occasionally answer with a quick volley of mortar shells to let them know it was not a tempting offer.
The days grew dreary and generally uneventful - except for consistent shelling. When the rounds did not come in too heavily, the men scavenged for any materials to make their foxholes more habitable and create roofs above their heads. There was little to do except clean rifles and try to keep dry. To stay warm, a soldier would sometimes leave his foxhole and jump around to get his blood flowing again before diving back in at the first hint of an incoming round.
It seemed to have rained constantly during the month the regiment had been occupying positions in Forêt de Parroy. At least those who traveled in the motor march on the journey from the coast had been able to break at times, fortunate to encounter local French citizens happy to share a bottle of cognac or wine with their liberators. The men forced to travel by rail had no leisure. Most were bored and irritated, and many became ill from poor living conditions and bad sanitation in the boxcars. Back together as a regiment, however, they all endured the same march across soggy ground to reach their new positions in the forest to replace the 79th Division.
Private First Class Charles R. Lee had been on the front for two weeks and had seen no sign of the Germans. An endless drizzle permeated his uniform, chilling him thoroughly. He rested his chin on folded arms across the receiver of his machinegun, and a sigh escaped as he scanned the woods before him with dark eyes. There were miserable days like this at home, but here it did not seem like the sun would shine again. And there was no artillery to hide from on the farm.
Throughout the month, patrols into enemy territory became more frequent and reinforcements continued to arrive and strengthen the line. Everyone felt something brewing, but it was a question of when. The rain and mud persisted and it seemed to Charles that the rest of the war would be filled with only monotony like this. Patrol, reconnoiter, clear mines, reinforce fortifications, bail out a puddled foxhole – just like yesterday and again tomorrow. Everyone was itching for a fight and becoming weary from the constant artillery. Rumor had it that the enemy soldiers were a “stomack battalion,” who needed special care and rations being in poor health and disarray. Orders for an attack finally came, and on the eve of November 13, both sides prepared with a fierce exchange of artillery that lasted through the night. Through the haze, the horizon glowed with each muffled blast that made the trees soft silhouettes on the horizon.
The rain had turned to snow, the mud frozen, and the puddles in foxholes to a dirty slush. The GIs had been lucky to dig in while the ground was still soft. Over a foot of snow had fallen since flurries began days earlier, and a thick mist lingered above its surface in the morning hours. The privilege of spearheading the attack fell on 3d Battalion’s L Company, leading K and M Companies into no man’s land with the rest of the regiment following. Charles crept forward in the knee-deep snow, peering through the dense fog. Every outline and shadow took the form of an enemy soldier, a machine gun emplacement, or a pillbox. Knowing that the enemy lay waiting so patiently only made him more anxious. When would they strike? He wondered if the Germans he was facing were as nervous as he was.
Lee clutched the tripod for his .30-caliber machinegun and peered into the gray before him, hardly seeing a hundred yards in front him. He pulled his shoulders in, trying to shrink his six-foot frame to form a smaller target. The three companies were approaching their target hill, barely visible, but L Company men appeared to be moving up its slope. He tightened his grip on the tripod and felt the cold steel biting into his shoulders through layers of clothing. The company was about a mile, maybe more, from where they had started their assault at 0700 that morning.
Charles felt like his leg had been wrenched out from under him and he spun on the ground as a massive explosion reverberated nearby. He cursed and rolled over, clutching his leg as he watched as the German gunners found marks in other victims lying in the snow. He examined his wound as a dark stain spread across his trousers. One of his buddies crawled over, yelling for a medic. They were all occupied with other casualties. Charles bit his lip to combat the searing pain from a chunk of metal he could barely see peeking out from the gash in his pants. He certainly would not be able to walk this one off.
That Monday and Tuesday were a difficult two days for the regiment as they faced Germans who stubbornly defended their positions until expending all of their ammunition. The 114th Infantry eventually received orders from Division to strike hard, and with support from the 324th and artillery, they swept the Germans out, allowing the 324th to push through the hedgerows and onto Avricourt. It was nearly impossible for medics, or anyone for that matter, to crawl into no-man's land and retrieve any casualties during the two-day battle. In some cases it would take up to three days for some of them to be pulled from the battlefield. Charles managed to make it back to friendly positions, either on his own or with the help of a medic or a friend. He was evacuated to the 51st Evac Hospital where he promptly received his orders for the Purple Heart medal, now a symbol of his first day on the receiving end of vicious machinegun and artillery fire.
The 324th Infantry went on without Private Lee to clear houses and cellars in "Bloody Avricourt." As he lay among rows of other men under white sheets, he wondered what fate held for those he had grown close to over the past few months. Resistance after the first couple days became minimal and taking the town made liberating the rest of Alsace possible. The next few towns were not nearly as grueling as the previous battles. The regiment pushed through Deutsch-Avricourt, Rechicourt, Bois de Ketzing, St. Georges, Neufmoulins, Heming, Haut-Clocher, and finally Langate – names of places ravaged by shelling that most men would forget in their later years. It took just three days to plow through these small French towns, capturing more than one each day. For these actions, the 324th received a letter of commendation from Lt. Gen. Alexander Patch.
Enemy machine guns opened up simultaneously and men of 3d Battalion dropped on their bellies. Fire came from concrete pillboxes leftover from the last war, still perched on the hill. The gun positions glowed behind a shroud of mist with each burst, but it was still impossible to see the enemy soldiers. Lee scrambled to set up his .30-cal, hands shaking from the cold and a rush of adrenaline. Bullets whizzed by and slapped into the ground, spraying up little geysers of snow and dirt. Mortars and artillery shells dropped through the mist, slamming into the dirt near the approaching men. The thick atmosphere curled behind them like a vapor trail.
Ahead, the movements of friendly soldiers were still obscured, but Lee could see they were moving in on the pillboxes. Within fifteen minutes, L Company had over thirty casualties and counting. Charles squeezed rounds through his machinegun, hoping his cover could save some Americans ahead of him. Each shell seemed to fall closer to his position, and he and his crew tried to bury themselves deeper into the snow, pressing their bodies as close to the ground as they could manage.
After forty-seven days of recovery in the hospital, Charles finally rejoined his brothers in combat on December 31 as they continued their vicious fight through France toward the Vosges Mountains looming to the east. It was disturbingly quiet when he reached the front and found his home again with M Company. The mortar men were planning on breaking the silence by letting out a barrage at midnight to celebrate the New Year.
The moon, just barely waned from two days before, gave cold and clear illumination off the snow. Minutes before midnight, German troops in white uniforms crept toward the lines of the 324th Infantry and broke the tranquil winter landscape with sporadic fire. The barrage of mortars did come, but in the grim business of war and not any celebration. They rained down in such volume that there were often 150 rounds in the air at a time and the mortar crews blew through about 3000 rounds in an hour and a half.
Charles’ ears were ringing. It was bittersweet to be back in combat after he had been spoiled by the relative comforts of the hospital. At least on this night the 3d Battalion was taking more limited offense from the Germans. The other two battalions and the neighboring 71st Infantry were getting hit much harder. The weather was still awfully cold, though not as wet as when he was evacuated in mid-November.
By the third day, only a small number of Germans stubbornly resisted the 3d Battalion from houses on the edge of Frauenburg, but enemy patrols from the surrounding divisions slipped into the lines constantly. These small actions were actually devastating to the progress of the regiment, and they never held the entire town until the end of the month. With the Ardennes Offensive raging in the north, the Germans felt that holding the Alsace region was crucial to support their troops miles away and they continued to harass the 324th Infantry.
In the early part of January, Charles and the rest of the regiment received some woolen booties sewn from salvaged blankets by French women. He was instructed to fill them with straw and wear them over his combat boots or shoepacs to prevent trenchfoot. Remaining in fixed positions throughout the winter was miserable, but at least it meant there was good food nearby. He ate a hot breakfast and a hot dinner each day with a K ration in between.
The probing patrols slowed by the middle of the month, though artillery and mortar barrages became more frequent. On the night of January 14, a unit from the Psychological Warfare Branch joined the 324th to broadcast their bribes to the ‘stomach battalions’ who were suffering from terrible diets and living conditions. It was much like the calls Charles heard from the Germans on his first days on the line when he joined the unit – and the Germans answered exactly as the 324th had – with a slew of artillery.
In such heavy woods, there was no time to take prisoners and raging machine guns cut down the enemy. 3d Battalion was still moving toward Guderkirch, about 100 yards outside of Bettviller.
For centuries, their precipitous slopes of the Vosges Mountains provided a geographical barrier between France and Germany. Regal castles fortified by robust bastions and curtain walls stood as aging testaments to the contested land between the two nations, a reminder of Man’s incessant nature to wage war and conquer. They rested as stoic witnesses to centuries of warfare, weathered from the elements and battered from the shelling of the last Great War. Infantrymen reflected on their existence in this fabled land. They knew when it was all over – if they were alive to see it – that there would be no great knights, only weary soldiers of grit, and the staunch castles would again be surrounded by land pitted with fresh scars from a new era of war.
To be continued...
(1) Combat History of the 324th Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division. Baton Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Pub., 1946. Print.
(2) "44th Infantry Division." 44th Infantry Division. Flume Creek Company, 2011. Web. 26 June 2016.
Combat History of the 324th Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division. Baton Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Pub., 1946. Print.