1917-1919 * St. Mihiel * Lorraine * Meuse-Argonne 1942-1946 * Ardennes * Rhineland * Central Europe
The story of Private 1st Class Melvin Edward Abitz at the Battle of The Bulge Written by John Galloway
Growing up in Dubuque Iowa, 18-year-old Melvin Abitz was certainly used to cold weather and snow on the ground. But on this cold and snowy winter day, he was Private Mel Abitz of the United States Army. He was lying in the snow on his belly in the Hurtgen forest in German trying to hide from withering machine gun fire. Lying in the snow beside him was another 18-year-old whose last word had been “Mother” when a bullet hit him right between the eyes. This was Private Abitz’s first few moments in combat; he was terrified and thought he was about to die.
The Hurtgen forest lies south of Aachen in Germany and runs along the German-Belgian border. It is roughly fifty square miles, densely wooded with tall fir trees that in 1944, were so thick they blocked the sun. The forest floor was dark and damp with low hanging interlocking branches that made it difficult for anyone to stand up straight. It was like a green cave, always dripping water, low roofed and forbidding. It was a terrible place to try to fight against a well-entrenched enemy. (1)
The Americans were pushing back against the German counter-offensive that came to be known as The Battle Of The Bulge. The Germans were defending from behind what they called the “Westwall” or Siegfried Line, a nearly 400 mile long line of bunkers and fortifications that Hitler had ordered manned after the Allies invaded France on D-Day. The Hurtgen Forest was part of that defensive line.
The campaign through the Hurtgen forest was ill-fated from the beginning. That battle had started months before Private Abitz arrived there and had been very costly. The Americans had taken tens of thousands of casualties.. It was difficult to command anything larger than a platoon there because soldiers lost sight of each other in the thick low hanging branches of the fir trees. Noted historian Stephen Ambrose would later write that this battle was ill-conceived and was grossly, even criminally, stupid. (1) The American generals would not realize until months after the battle started that the dams controlling the Ruer River should have been their first objective and not taking the dense and heavily defended forest. The dams could have been taken from the more accessible south instead of through the forest where the Germans had a strong defensive line set up. The forest was not that important, the dams were. By the time Private Abitz arrived there in early January the American generals had realized that the dams should be the prime objective and it was on such a mission that Private Abitz found himself on this bitterly cold day, lying in the snow trying to stay alive.
Private Abitz had arrived at the Battle of The Bulge via troop ship, old railway cars used for both troops and horses, and finally a truck to the front lines near the German town of Lammersdorf. He was assigned to second platoon, Company B, 309th regiment of the 78th Infantry Division. That regiment had sustained severe casualties in the previous weeks and Private Abitz was sent up as a replacement. His assignment was to carry a Browning Automatic Rifle, a light machine gun that could either fire single shots or machine-gun bursts. It weighted 18 pounds and had a magazine that held 20 rounds of 30cal ammunition. Being a new guy in the regiment, he was not acknowledged by the veterans as one of them yet; in fact, the new guys were treated like outsiders. They were assigned to the most dangerous jobs and often took the point in any advances toward the enemy. Private Abitz was assigned to an assault squad that would lead his company through the forest toward a German gun emplacement, which had blocked their advance toward the Schwannenval Dam over the Ruhr River. (2)
On this day, January 10, 1945 it was below freezing and the Americans were outfitted with only a green army field jacket which stood out against the white snow and made them easy targets for the German guns. The morning had started at 7am with Private Abitz’s squad out ahead of the rest of the company, scouting and running a communication wire forward toward the German lines. The battle erupted when one of the men carrying the wire stepped on a Shu mine, blowing off the bottom of his leg from the knee down. The explosion also alerted the Germans of the American movements toward their positions. The Germans had cleared the terrain near their emplacements in order to have a clear field of fire and their guns and artillery immediately opened up on the exposed Americans. Explosions from munitions designed to explode in the treetops rained down on them sending both hot metal and shards of splintered trees onto the soldiers. Both heavy and light machine guns found their easily identifiable targets. There was no place to hide. Ahead they could see the fortified pillbox with heavy machine guns extending from metal gun ports fixed into thick concrete bunker walls. That machine gun fire was murderous; they knew they had to knock it out if they had any chance of survival.
Private Abitz was assigned to cover the bazooka man with his weapon but it had jammed due to the snow; he was unclear what his next move was going to be. Then he saw his sergeant ahead giving orders to a soldier to move forward with a beehive mine, which is a shaped-charge, and attack the pillbox. The platoon lieutenant, himself under heavy fire, provided covering fire for the soldier as he made his way forward toward the pillbox. Private Abitz stared in disbelief as the soldier was cut down a few yards ahead and lay dead in the snow. The sergeant then yelled to another man to move forward and Private Abitz watched as he was also cut down on his way forward carrying the mine. A third man was ordered to take up the mission only to be cut down a few yards ahead of the other two men. The mine had been moved within 30 feet of the pillbox but at the cost of three American lives.
The sergeant looked around for another man to attack the pillbox and ordered Private Abitz to be the next to move forward. Stopping only long enough to receive instructions from the sergeant on how to set off the mine, he made his way toward where the mine now lay in the snow near his three dead buddies. On his way forward to retrieve the mine, Private Abitz, having no working weapon to defend himself with, stopped at each dead body and took the hand grenades off the belts of his fallen comrades. He then picked up the mine and ran into intense German fire, taking what cover he could and ran toward the wire that was surrounding the bunker. Private Abitz came under direct fire from burp-guns and rifles from German-occupied-foxholes near the pillbox, but he silenced them with his hand grenades. His grenades killed four Germans and gave him a momentary clear path to the perimeter of the pillbox ahead.
Private Abitz ran at full speed with the heavy mine and somehow made his way over the barbed wire that was defending the pillbox. Suddenly he found himself dropping unexpectedly into in a trench that surrounded the pillbox. Also in the trench with Private Abitz were several German troops who were scurrying around and who seemed to be just as terrified as he was. What happened next probably took only about a minute but seemed like a lifetime to Private Melvin Abitz.
When Private Abitz was unable to climb up to the relatively thin roof to set off the mine as instructed by his sergeant, he noticed a 3’ steel door slightly ajar and quickly realized that it lead inside the bunker packed with Germans. Opening the door and moving inside the bunker he took the mine and laid it on it’s side and aimed it down the short corridor which led into the main section of the bunker. A gunport with a rifle aiming at his position was just over his head. He nervously looked over his shoulder checking his access to the door knowing he would only have 10 seconds before the mine went off. Private Abitz then tried to get the t-shaped mine actuator pulled which would set off the mine. Aware of the enemy soldiers nearby his heart pounded fiercely as he fumbled with the actuator. His hands were so cold they could not grasp the actuator firmly; they were practically useless to him. Bending over the mine on his knees, he took the t-shaped actuator in his teeth. While holding the mine down with both of his numb hands, he pulled the lanyard out with his teeth far enough that he was sure the timer had gone off. He quickly made sure the mine was aimed down the corridor and ran out the door and up and over the trench. He made it back over the wire as he heard the explosion go off behind him.
When he noticed that much of the firing had ceased his training took hold and he went back over the wire and into the trench to cover any remaining Germans who were still alive. He failed to remember that he wasn’t armed. There were four stunned Germans still alive and Private Abitz yelled like crazy for his men to advance and help him secure the bunker. It seemed like an eternity before some friendly faces finally showed up to help with the final capture of the German post.
Inside the pillbox they recovered what they think were the remains of 19 German soldiers. There were so many body parts strewn about in the bunker that they were not sure of the exact count. The bodies, or what were left of them, were stacked up outside the compound like firewood where they would be preserved by the below freezing weather. The four remaining Germans were taken prisoner and sent back to the rear of the lines.
The Americans now feared that the Germans would be mounting a counter-attack and the bunker, now in American hands, was used as a company command post for holding the line against the expected German charge. Private Abitz, still apparently a new guy, was assigned with another GI to man a foxhole a few dozen yards out toward the Germans and to report back if they saw or heard any German movements. As they were watching and waiting, Private Abitz noticed some Germans advancing and told his fellow GI to follow him back to company HQ to report on the enemy movement. The other GI became frozen with fear, unable to move or speak, so he stayed in the foxhole where he was killed when the Germans advanced.
About a week after the 309th defeated the last of several German counter-attacks Private Abitz was sent back to division headquarters and awarded The Silver Star for gallantry in combat. He was also offered a field-promotion to 2nd lieutenant, a promotion to almost certain death; instead, he asked to be promoted to Private First Class. His actual Silver Star was sent home to his folks and Private Abitz returned to his unit for the final push toward their objective at the Ruhr River.
From an elevation of around 2200 feet, the Ruhr River runs about 135 miles from the mountainous Sauerland region of western Germany and flows into the lower Rhine River carrying with it a large water discharge of about the same size as the Thames in the United Kingdom. The Schwammenauel Dam overlooks the Ruhr river basin through which the American First Army was scheduled to pass, and the 309th was assigned to secure that dam to prevent the Germans from blowing it and flooding the American army and making the terrain impassable. This mission was vital if the American troops were going to keep up their drive into Germany.
Over the next week, as they moved forward engaging the enemy and trying to stay alive, Mel Abitz, now referred to as Private First Class (PFC)Abitz was often assigned to the 12 man assault squad that would scout ahead and behind enemy lines on night patrols. The 309th captured the town of Schmidt near the dam on one of these raids, but the Germans counter-attacked and took it back. The Americans regrouped and took it back from the Germans once again. There were fierce firefights with heavy causalities on both sides. PFC Abitz and his squad were one of the first across the dam and it was finally secured in American hands. Near the dam a German sniper zeroed in on the soldier standing right next to PFC Abitz and the man dropped like a rock. Not waiting for the sniper to reload he took off toward some nearby cover. That sniper had a choice that day whether to kill PFC Abitz or the man standing right next to him; it was not his time to die that day.
He spent his 19th birthday hunkered down on a hill near the dam as Allied 155mm artillery shells streaked over his head toward German lines beyond. With every round that went over his head, he hoped that the round would not fall short. His unit was rewarded for being one of the first across the dam with a one-day pass to Liege Belgium where he enjoyed a chocolate sundae before getting back to his unit and the continued fighting.
Their objective accomplished, the 309th crossed the Ruhr River and fought their way across the Cologne Plain toward the Rhine River. They were looking for the Ludendorff railroad bridge at the German town of Remagen. Remagen is about 50 miles from Cologne and just south of Bonn, the former capital of West Germany and was heavily defended. The Rhine marked German territory, and the German troops offered stiff resistance defending their homeland. There is a book and a movie about this incredible battle which was fought by the American 9th Armored Division starting on March 7th 1945. The bridge was heavily damaged and wired with explosives as the Germans sought to block the American advance into Germany. The 309th crossed two days later on March 9th while still under intense enemy ground fire and from enemy dive bombers and fighter aircraft. The Americans were told to approach the bridge at full speed, run like hell, turn left on the other side, and don’t stop. PFC Abitz did just that as the crossed the bridge at full speed. As soon as he was on the other side, he glanced off to his right into a German gun emplacement located in the train tunnel and saw dozens of civilian slave labor huddled down trying to take shelter from the heavy fire. Welcome to Nazi Germany, PFC Abitz.
The Germans were hitting them with everything they had including jet fighters which PFC Abitz saw for the first time. The Allies were pouring massive amounts of men and material into the fight including heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft guns which they used to knock down the dive bombers and the jet fighters. As they settled down that first night, PFC Abitz’s unit occupied the home of Willie Messerschmitt who designed the ME262 jet fighters that the Allies were knocking out of the skies that day.
As the 309th regrouped and headed northeast, they were forced to fight every step of the way. The terrain was rough, hilly and heavily forested. On March 11, PFC Abitz was once again part of a 12-man squad sent out on a scouting mission at night looking for the famous German autobahn. It was pitch dark and as they were walking through a clearing that had a dirt road, they suddenly heard mechanized German troops coming down the road. The squad got off the road taking what little cover there was in the clearing and hoped to keep quiet and let the Germans pass. As the enemy got near one of the soldiers in the squad did something stupid and decided to challenge the German troops. His fellow American soldiers were disbelieving when he stood up and yelled “halt”! The reply from the Germans was an instant barrage of small arms fire and explosions from mortar or grenades. The Germans sent up a bright parachute flare which lit up the clearing as if it were broad daylight. Fully illuminated and with no place to hide, the Americans were, to use PFC Abitz’s words, “being mowed down”. He heard and then saw a nearby fellow soldier screaming in pain. He picked him up and threw him over his shoulder and started running away from the sound of the enemy guns. An explosion, probably from a grenade, knocked them down and PFC Abitz received a large wound in his thigh that was bled profusely. The wounded soldier who was being carried by PFC Abitz was killed instantly, probably taking most of the blast of the explosion. His attempt to save his buddy’s life may have instead saved his own.
It was pitch dark again when the flare went out and PFC Abitz wrapped a dirty wool scarf around his leg as a tourniquet in an effort to stop the bleeding. Losing his helmet, rifle and most of his other gear, he starting crawling away from the sounds of the enemy fire. He crawled all night until he passed out on the crest of a hill sometime later that night. He was awakened around dawn by the sounds of soldiers at the base of the hill and was relieved to see they were Americans. At first it was not clear whether or not they would mistake him for a German and fire at him but thankfully they did recognized him and sent a team to bring him back to their aid station to receive medical care for his wounds. He had been saved by a unit of the 9th Armored Division. They later transported him back to their regimental hospital for further medical care. He could barely comprehend what he saw upon arriving at the regimental hospital; he was not sure if it was real or a pain induced nightmare. Like some gruesome movie there were men having limbs amputated and screaming in pain. Off to one side was a large barrel filled with amputated body parts. There was blood everywhere. He tried his best to sleep and forget all that he had seen. He was weak and throughly exhausted. As far as he knew he was the only man to survive the firefight that night in the dark German woods.
Stabilized, he was sent back across the Rhine in a small boat as the heavily damaged Ludendorff bridge was still one-way traffic heading into Germany, carrying Allied troops into the fight. A few days later the battle-scared bridge finally collapsed into the Rhine. He arrived at a hospital back in Liege Belgium located in the basement of a building. When a nurse began cutting the bandage away he got a good look at the wound for the first time. The wound appeared to be about 3 inches deep, 5 inches wide and 7 inches long. The flesh had grown into the bandage and without benefit of pain medication or even a bullet to bite, the nurse slowly cut the bandage out of the wound with a small pair of scissors. The pain was intense as his flesh tore away with the bandage. PFC Abitz is quite sure he bent the brass headboard above his head as she slowly cut away both the bandage and some of his flesh. He could’t help but notice the close location of the wound to another important body part and later told his children that had the wound been one inch higher they would never have been born.
Back home, his parents gratefully received a telegram informing them that their son was alive and in a hospital. Two weeks earlier, they had been informed that he was missing in action. This, of course, was a common scene during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of American families would receive the dreaded telegram from the President telling them that their loved one would never be coming home.
He was later flown to England from Belgium on a DC-3 (C-47) where he received skin grafts on his right leg with skin taken from his left leg. Weeks later, a hospital ship carried him back to the United States where he spent 5 months in a Topeka, Kansas hospital recovering from his woulds and having surgery to close the 4-inch gap in the flesh of his leg. During his service to his country, PFC Abitz spent a total of 9 weeks in combat and 8 months in hospitals. For this soldier, the fighting part of the war was over now. The memories would be with him forever.
Mel Abitz was raised in the Mid-West by his mother and step-father. He was in middle-school when WWII broke out in December of 1941. Upon reaching his 18th birthday, Mel tried to enlist into the pilot training program of both the Navy and the Army Air Corp but was rejected because of imperfect color perception. He was also rejected from serving in the Paratroops because of the same reason. He waited to be drafted and was sent to Camp Roberts in the California desert for his basic training. After being assigned to the 69th Infantry Division in Mississippi, Mel was shipped out from New York to England where he made his way across the English Channel to the front lines as a replacement in the 78th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Lighting Division. Mel earned several medals including The Purple Heart, The Silver Star, The Bronze Star and The British Military Medal.
Like most GIs from what we now call The Greatest Generation, Mel put the war behind him and began his new life by going to school on the GI Bill; he studied industrial design at the Chicago Art Institute. He married Ruth Emily Sargeant, an art student there and raised two successful daughters when they moved to Florida in 1956. He worked as a design engineer and plant manager for a furniture factory in Tampa and retired at age 60. Growing up on the Mississippi River, Mel has always had a love for boats; he has designed and built several and has won national boat design awards. He and Ruth still live in Tampa where they both have tremendous and well-deserved pride in their family and are now enjoying the successes of their grandchildren. Mel and Ruth are now 86 years old.
The events in this article were taken from interviews I did with Mel and Ruth during March and April 2012. To learn more about the 78th Infantry Division’s capture of the Schwammenauel Dam and battles in Germany please see: http://www.lonesentry.com/gi_stories_booklets/78thinfantry/index.html
Footnotes: (1) Citizen Soldier , chapter 6, Stephan E. Ambrose; (2) The River Ruhr is often see as Roer and it is confusing as to whether both spellings are correct.
Contact the Author, John Galloway at Liberty.email@example.com for more information.
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