E Co. – HQ Co. 395th Infantry Regiment
“WE WERE ON GUARD DUTY AND ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE!!”
That’s how Robert “Bobby” Sterrett of Monterey, Virginia, recalled the events of seventy years ago today, December 16th, 1944
“Hell” was the massive German artillery barrage that was unleashed against the American army. This was the opening salvo of what would be known as The Battle of the Bulge.
In The last major offensive action of the war in Europe, the German Army attacked the American forces along a sixty mile front stretching from Luxembourg to Belgium. German forces numbered approximately half-a-million men along with tanks, artillery and just about anything else the Germans could throw at the Americans.
My father, Robert “Bobby” Sterrett, was born in Staunton, VA, August 24th, 1924. In 1932, amid the great depression, his father lost his job at Staunton Military Academy where he had been a math teacher since 1918. As a result, the family returned to their native Highland County where his father taught math and was the principal of Monterey High School until his death in 1938. Dad graduated high school in 1942.
He completed a semester at Western Kentucky University, then enlisted in the Army in March of 1943.
He was initially assigned to the 71st Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division, as indicated by his cap insignia and shoulder patch, and did his basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington.
After a two week indoctrination period at Camp Lee, (now Ft. Lee), Virginia, dad was assigned to the 71st Infantry Regiment, which was a National Guard unit from New York, and shipped off to Ft. Lewis, Washington for boot camp. He says in his interview “I made a lot of good friends there”.
Our mother told me the following story on at least two occasions that I can recall.
“After we were married your father and I went on a trip to New York City. One day while we were in our hotel room, your father called the 71st Regimental Headquarters to inquire about some of his buddies. He had a list of around 10-15 names on it. He read off the first name “John Smith”, after which he replied simply “oh”, then read the next name, and again, replied “oh”. This went on until he just stopped replying. He said “thank you”, hung up the phone and never spoke of it.”
After boot camp, he was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), sent to the Texas and lost contact with the friends he’d made during boot camp.
Scoring very high on the Army’s qualifications tests, he was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), and sent to the Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy in El Paso, TX. to receive a degree in mine engineering. However, in early 1944, with the planned invasion of Europe and the ensuing battles that lay ahead, the Army terminated the college program and sent the student soldiers to fill the ranks of newly formed infantry divisions and as replacements for units whose ranks had been reduced by combat casualties.
Dad was assigned as an infantryman to the 395th Infantry Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division at Camp Maxie, TX
The 99th set sail in October of 1944. After a brief stay in England, his unit shipped off to the European mainland and landed at the port of LaHarve, France. The “Red Ball Express” then transported them by truck to the front. On 9 November, 1944, dad’s unit went into combat on the Siegfried Line in Belgium, overlooking the town of Monschau. Because he was a “college boy” he was assigned to Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, as an infantry scout in the intelligence section. His Job was to patrol and scout enemy positions and to obtain valuable combat intelligence. In enemy territory, he would draw rudimentary maps, gather information from enemy dead, interrogate captured German soldiers, dig foxholes, pull lots of guard duty and above all, try (in vain), to stay warm and dry!!
After a period of time in combat, his Division was taken off-the-line and was sent to a quiet sector of Belgium known as the Ardennes Forrest for R & R, or resupply and refit. Here the units would receive replacement soldiers, resupplies of food, munitions, fuel, etc. Based on the best information the allied commanders had at the time, there would be little action during the winter months and this would give the allies time to fully prepare for a Spring Offensive.
Most of the army units in Europe were now in “static” or stationary positions, as was the German units. The Germans, it was believed by just about everyone, didn’t have much fight left in them and almost all the GI’s were saying “it’ll all be over by Christmas”!! Another reason the Americans were static was the fact they had advanced so rapidly against the retreating Germans, they had gotten too far ahead of their supply lines and had to halt in place to allow for the supplies, mainly fuel, to catch up!!
It was the coldest European winter in decades. Daytime temperatures below freezing, nighttime, well below zero. Anything that was the least bit wet froze. Including your feet. Like thousands of other soldiers that winter, dad suffered from frost-bitten feet, a condition that would affect him the remainder of his life. “You had to move about to keep warm, but moving about made you a target for a German sharpshooter”.
In the early morning hours of December 16th, 1944 the Germans began their massive and last offensive of the war, in the Ardennes Forest, which would be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Their offensive began with one of the largest artillery barrages of the war, which lasted about an hour. My father and his buddy were guarding the headquarters “foxhole bunker” when shells began landing approximately 15 yards from where they were standing. They dove for cover under the nearest obstacle they could find…the ammunitions truck, fully loaded with precious ammunition!! “We were scared; we didn’t realize that we were under the ammo truck!!”
After the barrage ended, dad and his buddy crawled back into their foxholes and waited for the inevitable German attack. An attack against my father’s area was not immediate in coming. They were ordered to stay put in their present location and prepare for any attack against their sector. (Their division was on the Northern end of the American lines. The initial main German thrust had been against the center, near the town of Bastogne).
They had no winter clothing or gear of any type. Standard issue leather boots, which allowed moisture in. Not enough socks to keep your feet dry, had to hug their rifle against their body at all times to keep the receiver, (the moving parts), from freezing. (It has been widely reported that soldiers would urinate on their rifles in order to “unfreeze” the moving parts so they could fire their weapon). Most importantly, limited ammunition!! The heavy fog and overcast kept resupply from the air impossible. Their only resupply was from “pickin’ the dead and the wounded for ammo and clothing”.
After a heavy artillery battle near the town of Krinkelt, dad saw his company commander, Captain Sommerville, (who had been at Officers Candidate School with dads older brother, Doug), sitting on a stump of a tree that had been blown to bits by “tree burst shells”.
Dad approached Captain Sommerville “sitting on a stump, hunched over, freezing rain falling off his helmet”. “I never saw such a dejected figure in all my life”, dad recalled.
*“What’s the story Cap’n” asked my father? “Bob, we’re cut off, surrounded and I don’t think we’re gonna make it outta here”!! This sent chills through my father, something he remembered, (not fondly), for the rest of his life. He then returned to his foxhole…and waited!!
A couple of days later, his unit received orders to move out. As they were on the march, a Colonel from his unit asked where they were going. He was told they received orders to move to the rear. “Like hell you did” was the Colonels reply. “Turn around and get back where you were”. So dad returned to his previous foxhole and again……waited!!
The Germans had infiltrated the American radio net and were issuing false instructions to American forces causing much confusion.
The next day, however, his unit did receive valid orders to relocate farther to the north near the Elsenborn Ridge area where the Germans were engaged in a fierce artillery and tank battle with the Americans.
*On previous occasions, both prior to and after his recorded interview, dad always stated his Captain had said “Bob, we’re cut off, surrounded and I don’t think we’re gonna make it outta here”!! However, for some reason, during the recorded interview, he stated the Captain said “Bob, you know bout as much as I do!” The only time I ever heard that phrase. I do believe the former statement accurately describes his memory of the event simply because he was consistent in his recollection. Regardless, each time he told me the story, he became quite emotional, on the verge of tears. So, whatever was said, it had a profound effect on him the rest of his life.
Covering his unit’s relocation was a platoon of three tanks from 741st Tank Battalion, dad’s brothers unit. He saw a sergeant leaning against one of the tanks and asked who they were. “741st tank battalion” came the reply.
“You know lieutenant Sterrett?” he shouted. “Yeah, you his little brother?” “Yeah, when you see him, you tell ‘em his little brother is okay….as of today!” “Will do.” (His brother did receive the message).
At one point during the battle, HQ Company was quartered in the house of a German doctor. Dad was working at a table making maps from aerial reconnaissance photos. People were coming and going and he wasn’t paying them much mind, when he happened to look up and there stood his brother, Lieutenant Douglas Sterrett…with a bottle of wine!!
The German initial advance created a large “bulge” in the American lines. After much confusion the Americans regrouped and managed to push the Germans back, recapturing all the ground they had lost. By the beginning of February of 1945, the American lines were roughly in the same location as they were prior to the German attack.
This was the last gasp for the German army. Hitler had played his final card on the Western front.
When the Americans began their advance towards Germany, dad, although still officially assigned to Headquarters Company, was attached to “Easy” or E Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 395th.
For the remainder of the war in Europe, dad went ahead of the main unit of advance to scout what lay ahead and report back to his Battalion.
After the breakout from the Ardennes, the Army was moving so fast, they did not have maps as to what lay ahead. At one point dad and three other members of his patrol drove into what they thought was small, deserted town. They dismounted from their jeep and began cautiously looking around.
Dad entered a large “u-shaped, multi story building and found about a hundred or so men huddled together. Then out of nowhere, a thin ragged looking man approached me, snapped to attention and gave me a “very British salute”. He identified himself as a British Major and said he had been a POW for four years and I was the first allied soldier he had seen”.
Turns out they had driven into a prisoner of war camp (which held captured British soldiers), and dad and his patrol were the “camp liberators”. The British Major said the Germans had left “several days ago”!! Dad has no recollection of where they were. “Just somewhere in Germany.” The allies were moving so fast at the time and they had no maps to tell them where they were. Dad and his driver reported back, and then headed out again.
(*This was not one of the infamous “Concentration Camps” run by the SS, but most likely a “sub camp” of one of the larger POW camps run by the Luftwaffe. Most probable however, the prisoners were “on-the-march” under guard ahead of the Allied advance and their German captors found a building large enough to cram them in and left them there for the Allies to find.)
He crossed the Ludendorff Bridge in the town of Remagen under constant enemy barrage, the day after it’s capture by the 9th Armored Division.
Crossing the Danube river, (often called the “Blue Danube”), in flimsy wooden boats, under heavy enemy fire, this river became known by what was left of his unit, as the “Red Danube”. “We were wiped out”, he recalled!! The Danube was crossed near Eining on the 27th and the Isar at Landshut, 1 May, after a stubborn fight. The attack continued without opposition to the Inn River and Giesenhausen when VE-day came, dad ended the war “outside of Nuremburg”.
After the war, he was reassigned to the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. While home on leave, he was visiting members of his immediate family in Monterey and Ft. Defiance, Virginia. Unbeknownst to them, he was saying his final “goodbyes”.
The 4th Infantry Division was slated to be one of many spearhead units in the planned invasion of the Japanese homeland. Dad said “I knew I was gonna die”!!
While he was home on leave, the atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered. World War II was over.
He would be awarded The Bronze Star for Meritorious Service and the Presidential Unit Citation for his actions in the Battle of the Bulge, and receive three campaign stars for The Ardennes, Rhineland and Central European campaigns.
Dad returned to the Shenandoah Valley and became one of the original radio announcers on WTON in Staunton in 1946. He married, Elizabeth Goode in 1947. My mother, father, older brother, grandmother and I lived in Ft. Defiance and then Bridgewater.
Like most combat veterans of any war, he rarely mentioned his time in the war. Most of what I initially heard was from my mother. On rare occasion, he would answer a question or two, but mainly in vague terms.
One day while I was stationed in West Germany with the USAF in 1983, he and I drove to Remagen. During the drive he spoke in great length and detail of his time during the war.
In 2002, sitting on the front porch of an old cabin in Highland County, Virginia, he just started talking about his time in the army. This time, I had a video camera with me and recorded his story.
What I have submitted to the reader is his story in his words. They may not jive with actual history, and even his recollection of some events differed as the years went by. This article is not meant to be historically accurate, rather to relay one man’s story, in his words as he remembers it.
I wish I could convey the angst and pain of his words. Seeing the pain on his face, hearing the cracking of his powerful, baritone voice as he describes what only those who have experienced the absolute fear, desperation and horror of war, any war, can ever know.
History will record the 99th Infantry Division, was crucial in “holding the line” against repeated & relentless German attacks on the Northern end of the American front. The 395th Regiment would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its role during the largest battle ever fought by the United States Army, the Battle of the Bulge, which began seventy years ago, today.