Saturday, February 20, 2010

Two G.I. riflemen who fought and won in the Battle of the Bulge

I love history and military history is right at the top of my list. Reading about the G.I. riflemen who stopped the last gasp of the Nazi war machine at the Battle of the Bulge starting just before Christmas 1944 and extending into January 1945 has always been fascinating to me.

Gen. George Patton, who was billed as one of the heroes of that battle for leading his tanks to rescue the surrounded paratroopers at Bastogne, knew who the real heroes of the battle were when he said a G.I. armed with an M1 Garand was the most potent weapon on the battlefield.

From the current issue of American Rifleman, here's the story of two of those now-forgotten riflemen in The Men & Guns of the Battle of the Bulge.

The first G.I. took part in a bayonet charge in the fog, the second one started a battle with his Garand and finished it with an MP40 submachine pistol captured from a dead German soldier. Neither would quit until the job was done.
In early January 1945, an Allied counter-offensive struck the salient and produced still more intense combat in the bitter cold. At this time, the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division fighting on the north shoulder of the “Bulge” near Trois Ponts. Pvt. Joe M. Cicchinelli of A Company, 551st was one of those cold, shivering paratroopers, and he looked on as the men of B Company began an attack on the village of Dairomont on Jan. 4, 1945. When that attack ran into enemy machine guns concealed by heavy mist and fog, it began to stall. Cicchinelli’s platoon leader quickly realized that blindly firing into the mist might result in friendly fire casualties, so he gave the only command that made sense: “Fix bayonets!” Cicchinelli obediently drew his bayonet from its scabbard and mounted it on the lug at the muzzle of his M1 Garand rifle. At the command of “Charge,” they all rushed toward the Germans yelling and shouting. “We reached the enemy position, and leaped from foxhole to foxhole, thrusting our bayonets into the startled Germans,” Cicchinelli recalled. It was over in minutes and 64 enemies lay dead on the battlefield. Dairomont had been captured by a handful of determined American riflemen at the point of the bayonet.

Meanwhile on the opposite side of the “Bulge” salient, the 80th Infantry Division attacked the left flank of the German Seventh Army near Ettlebruck, Luxembourg. On Jan. 8, the 1st Battalion, 394th Infantry advanced to a plateau three miles southeast of the city of Wiltz with B Company occupying the tiny farming village of Dahl. As the company moved in, a nine-man squad lead by Staff Sgt. Day G. Turner was sent to establish a flank outpost at Am Aastert, a farm on the northeastern edge of the village. There, Turner’s men dug foxholes in the frozen pasture facing north toward the neighboring village of Nocher, less than a mile away across a gently sloping ravine.

Shortly before noon, German artillery began to fall on Am Aastert and enemy infantry advanced from Nocher into a stand of pine trees in the ravine. When the enemy emerged from the tree line and charged uphill toward the farm, Turner’s men began to drop them with accurate fire from their M1 rifles at 300 yards. Having failed with the first attack, the Germans pounded the farm again with a mortar and rocket barrage that drove the nine Americans from their foxholes and into the farm house.

Under the cover of the renewed barrage, enemy infantry attempted to cross the ravine and overrun Am Aastert again. This time, Turner and his men directed accurate rifle fire on them from open windows on the second floor—repulsing the second assault with heavy German losses. Undeterred, the Germans sent forward a third assault, this time with tank support. The enemy quickly stampeded toward Am Aastert as accurate mortar fire rained down around the house, killing one of Turner’s men. When German infantry finally reached the farm, the mortar fire lifted, and they closed in on the eight surviving Americans.

From his position on the second floor, Turner heard a German voice order some of the troops to charge the building. Determined to keep them out, he rushed to the top of the stairs and fired into a mass of five Germans as they attempted to climb them. But his Garand only gave him two shots and then locked open with a ping as the empty en bloc clip ejected from the rifle. The survivors pushed the bodies of the two dead aside and continued climbing the stairs toward Turner with his now-empty rifle. Out of ammunition, the 24-year-old staff sergeant reached for the closest object that could be used as a weapon: a nearby oil lamp. Turner hurled the lamp down the stairs at his antagonists, and when it shattered it engulfed them in flames. They immediately fled the building on fire, but then a second wave of attackers rushed in.

Turner tossed a grenade down the stairs toward them and dashed into another room to shelter himself from the explosion. After the blast, Germans stormed into the hallway of the second floor and Turner met them in the doorway where he bayoneted two of them before they could raise their weapons. Turner then grabbed an MP40 from one of the dead Germans and used it as he fought from room to room. Although five of his men had been wounded, he refused to surrender and led the remaining two unwounded soldiers as they mopped up what was left of the German assault force.

When they emerged from the house, they found dazed and wounded Germans anxious to surrender—25 in all. The bodies of 11 German dead littered the farm—most killed by Turner himself. His exceptional actions ultimately resulted in Turner being awarded the Medal of Honor on June 28, 1945, but he never wore it or knew he had received it. One month to the day after his heroic actions at Am Aastert, Turner was killed in action.

By the end of January, the Bulge salient had been reduced, and American lines returned to where they had been before the Germans launched their offensive. It was the largest battle that the U.S. Army fought during the Second World War, and the cost was enormous, with 19,000 killed in action and almost 50,000 wounded. The German casualties were even worse: 91,000 killed, wounded and missing. But for all the enormity of it, the Bulge was very much a rifleman’s battle where soldiers such as Joe Cicchinelli and Day Turner marked the difference between defeat and victory.

As the Hebrews Chapter 11 says of the heroes of the faith, the world is not worthy of such men. One of them survived, Pvt. Joe M. Cicchinelli, and he will be at the NRA Annual Meeting in May in Charlotte and I hope to meet him there and thank him for his service to our nation.

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