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Foot Soldier
by Fred Felder

  This is a war story with details of violence. It is not suitable for young children.

Note: Fred Felder was a combat mortar crew soldier in the 2nd Battalion of the U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division during World War Two. He wrote a book that is extremely difficult to obtain titled Foot Soldier. Because it is so difficult to obtain I now quote a few exerpts from it.

This story shared with you by
Kraig J. Rice


"Thirty of us boarded an olive-green Army truck on the morning of August 25th (1944) and were off to the front to join the division. Our unit turned out to be Company �G� of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment, a famous regiment known simply as the "9th Infantry." Our commander was Col. Chester Hirschfelder, to become the most decorated officer in the division. It has a long, distinguished history dating back to 1798 and is also known as the Manchu regiment.

But when we climbed out of the dusty truck and faced the 2nd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Walter M. Higgins, we were far more interested in its immediate future and our part in it. We were close behind the lines, just twenty miles from the city of Brest, a major port and former U-Boat base. It was being bitterly defended. The battalion commander looked us over and asked how many of us had seen combat. No one replied. He then said: "By nightfall all of you will have seen combat. We�re attacking at one o�clock this afternoon." That statement sent a ripple of fear through all.

The time had come. I was put in a 60mm Mortar Section, carrying a bag of mortar ammunition. I knew the 60mm mortar and was comfortable with my assignment.

Our artillery barrage began at 12:40 and we "jumped off" at 1 p.m., advancing slowly but steadily, and heard and saw our first enemy fire. This was hedgerow country, which meant that the farms were in squares, bordered on four sides by hedges growing on top of embankments. It was easily defended. The Germans had machine guns in the earthen walls, which were hard to hit with our own mortar or artillery fire. These machine guns had to be silenced before we could advance and they had been taking a heavy toll of American lives. My adopted foxhole buddy, Melvin Farris, and I, watched and learned that first day. We saw our first dead GI, lying peacefully along a hedge-row, and silently passed him by.

As mortar men, we followed the infantry at a distance, but not far enough back to escape mortar, artillery or rifle fire. We set up our mortar when the advance slowed or halted. Then requests would come by field telephone or walkie-talkie for mortar fire. That first afternoon our advance came to a standstill when we encountered the main German line. Here the fighting was hard and by nightfall the 9th Infantry had gained only yards. It was getting dark, time to stop advancing and dig. Farris and I dug our combat foxhole. We ate a K ration supper afterwards and were glad to stop fighting and get some sleep. But one had to keep watch while the other slept, off and on, all night. That was an unforgettable night, under the stars, our first in combat.

August 26
We were up early, even before the sergeant came running with the day�s orders. "Fellows, the artillery barrage will start at Zero Eight Hundred Hours. We jump off at 8:30." Farris and I had eaten our rations from the brown box and relieved ourselves in a slit trench we had dug the night before, and stood outside the foxhole and chatted nervously, waiting for our own artillery to start blasting the enemy lines out front. The barrage began on schedule and they really put the artillery down in front of us. When it let up, at 8:30- this was the 26th of August- we in the 2nd Battalion began to walk forward. Our infantrymen would advance along the safest side of the 12 to 15-foot-high hedgerows. If a machine gun was in the hedgerow ahead, the attackers would be on the outside of the two side hedgerows. We set up our mortar time after time when there was a call for fire.

Ours was the most powerful weapon Company G had, though the 60 mm. mortar weighed only 42 pounds. Shells which our six-man squad carried were three inches in diameter and 14 inches long. Our range was about two thousand yards. Of the six men in our squad (two mortar squads to a section) five, including me, were carrying ammunition. We could carry eight rounds each. As we fired and I used up our supply, we would hurry back to following jeeps or trucks and resupply our mortar. That morning the first call came from a soldier ahead who yelled over the walkie-talkie: "For God�s sake, put a few rounds on R-2- have you got a map?" Farris answered back: "Roger. Will do. Have map." We set up in no time and fired away, using the range stick we carried, with graduations, stuck in the ground. Each mortar shell was also adjustable by increments, for range. "That was over," the voice came back. We corrected the range and I set a shell and dropped it down the barrel. I had taught mortars at Camp Croft and I knew them from A to Z. On my third round I put a shell dead on target- I could usually do that. It was good to hear the shells explode and then to hear our infantry call back and say we were dead-on. Sometimes we could see the results.

That day the advance was again slow, and fighting heavy. Our three infantry platoons in G company were spread out, in touch by walkie-talkies. The weapons platoon, which we were a part of, consisted of mortars and machine guns. Firing the 60 mm. was a two-man job. If I sighted, Farriss fired, and if I fired, he sighted.

The slow struggle forward continued all day and we suffered more casualties. Just before dark we were told to dig in for the night. This time Farris and I decided to dig individual foxholes. We had learned to dig them at the bottom of a hedgerow, on the side away from the enemy. If an artillery shell came your way, it couldn�t hit you. A mortar shell would have to be a direct, one-in-a-million shot. The soil of Brittany was the darkest and richest I�ve ever seen. Not too hard to dig in, so in less than an hour we had dug our six-by-two fox�holes, two feet deep, and were getting into our combat packs for another K ration dinner. Foxholes along the back bank of these hedgerows were separated by about ten yards. Every time we stopped, we set up our mortar- in three minutes. It was always ready to fire and someone always stood guard. Some days we would be stopped and dig our foxholes and then the infantry would get moving again and we�d follow. They would be stopped again, and we�d think this was for the night, and dig another. Then we�d have to move off again. Some days we dug as many as three foxholes.

August 28th
On the fourth day of our attack we advanced only twenty yards. That was August 28th. During that day one of our lieutenants ordered two men to crawl forward to the next hedgerow and silence a German machine gun holding up the battalion. This was in daylight. Both were killed. So when it was dark, two GI�s crawled slowly and quietly forward on their bellies and reached a position under the muzzle of the German machine gun without being detected. They were armed with lightweight carbines, wore no helmets (only a knit cap), and had faces blackened. They traveled light, so they could move fast when necessary. From their position they actually reached up and pulled the gun out of the hedgerow. That startled the German crew, which surrendered. That cleared the way for a resumption of our advance.

During this time Melvin Farris and I hit it off good, and realized we were becoming great friends. We both had two years of college, were the same age and we found something to laugh about. Farris was a music major in college, could play any musical instrument, especially the piano. We enjoyed long talks at night when there was a lull in the fighting. He even wrote my sister Margaret long letters. Melvin was to be of much help to me in the coming weeks and months. So was my squad leader, Sergeant Jack McClure, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a full blooded Indian. He gave me tips which no doubt saved my neck.

The night and day routine of the advance on Brest continued day after day. All survivors were getting tired. On September 4, our infantrymen broke through the city�s outer chain of defenses. We had suffered heavy casualties, especially the 3rd Battalion, around the city�s airfield, where fighting was fierce. Company G was finally relieved and sent to the rear to reorganize and recuperate from the effects of eleven days of continuous fighting. Although we GI�s didn�t know it or care much- we came under the command of 9th Army.

September 5
On September 5th, our artillery began to soften up the city�s inner defense lines with a heavy bombardment while we enjoyed hot baths and hot meals for the first time in many days.

September 8
The attack on the city was resumed on September 8th- by our sister regiments, the 23rd and 38th. The attackers made progress but German defenders fell back in an orderly fashion. Hitler was urging them to fight to the death and delay our capture of the port, which German demolition teams were now busy destroying.

September 13
On September 13th we were moved up to the front lines again, for a new attack on the inner defenses of the city by all three of the division�s regiments. We advanced on the 14th and progress was immediate, though the city�s huge inner walls gave the defenders tactical advantages. On the 15th we reached the great wall itself. The wall was approximately six stories high and in order to get across this wall our artillery pounded one spot for about twelve hours and broke it to bits, so foot soldiers could climb through.

Next day the final attack on the city began; all of Company G was now on top of the wall, overlooking the City of Brest and the harbor.

On the 17th our division reached the harbor, in the center of the city. German resistance was disintegrating. At the time we were fighting inside the city, living in houses, firing our mortars day and night. This was a kind of fighting we hadn�t been trained for but we liked being in a big city, living in houses.

September 18
We were overjoyed on the 18th when the German commander, General Herman Ramke, surrendered 38,000 German troops to the three U.S. infantry divisions (Second, 29th and 8th) and part of 6th Armored. This was General Troy Middleton�s VIII Corps, which had been transferred from Hodge�s 1st Army to Patton�s Third and then to General William Simpson�s 9th in this campaign. The Corps had suffered 9,831 killed, missing and wounded in capturing Brest and liberating the Brittany Peninsula. Many, including General Bradley, in retrospect, felt this costly campaign could have been avoided. Bradley admitted in "A General�s Life" that Middleton�s VIII Corps could have been used "to better advantage" in the advance on Germany, which the breakout at St. Lo had turned into a massive rout.

We GI�s didn�t know anything about this, of course, and enjoyed ten days of wonderful rest and leisure in the Brest area after the surrender. Our other armies were racing toward the Rhine in a high state of optimism. Many in Europe and in the States thought the war would soon be over, that the Germans could never recover from the rout they had suffered after General Patton�s army broke out of the Normandy bridgehead.

So in those beautiful ten days in Brittany, that September of 1944, we wondered if it would all soon be over. Melvin Farris and I speculated about what we�d do back home after the war. Paris had fallen and American armies were approaching the Rhine. The French were euphoric, and friendly, and very few foresaw the coming fall and winter, the grim struggle still ahead.

Our idyll was shattered when orders came down that we were to be sent by train to St. Vith, in Belgium, on the German border! Few of us knew anything about St. Vith, a town destined to become famous in military history in three months. Before we departed Brittany my cousin, Staff Sergeant "Pot" Fomby, of the 8th division�s Signal Corps, who had also been in the Brest campaign, paid me a visit. Pot had a jeep and a case of wine so we enjoyed a trip to a nearby French town, frolicking and talking of our combat experiences, both thinking the war was coming to an end, and in high spirits.

But on the afternoon of September 27th, the mood changed. We had been ordered to have full combat gear ready. Each man had been issued ten K rations and we knew we were in for a long journey. We were on alert to move within an hour. We waited expectantly until 11 p.m. Then a train pulled in to the old station. It was almost like World War One again. These were the same little freight cars that had moved many of our fathers about France in 1917 and 1918. Soon we were loaded on the �Forty and Eights�- forty men and eight horses was the World War I loading- and started off on a slow, night journey. French railroads had been mercilessly bombed by our air forces before the invasion and the Luftwaffe had been bombing them since.

We chugged along slowly, stopping often, uncomfortable and getting little sleep. At Rennis, we were given copies of the "Stars and Stripes" and Cool drinks. It sounds unbelievable but it took us a A day and a half to reach Paris. Everyone on the train had heard of Paris, of course, and we hoped to be able to stop for at least an hour, to see something of the capital. But all were disappointed. The train stopped for only half an hour and we weren�t allowed off. I barely got a glimpse the Eiffel Tower from the rail yards.

By now we were all exhausted, ready to get off our French train just about anywhere. We were moving closer and closer to the front, stopping, and then moving on. Finally, early next morning, in the darkness, the train stopped. The countryside was big rolling hills; the low, grey clouds produced a chilling rain. We were only ten miles from the Siegfried Line. We stayed on our Forty and Eights until daylight, then dismounted and marched five miles in the rain on muddy roads with full packs. our destination was a big, open, muddy field! After a time here we were divided into small groups and loaded on trucks which had arrived to take us to a site not far from St. Vith. As the trucks rolled through the small towns, villagers cheered the sight of the Americans. On each side of the trucks� hoods, GI�s had painted the names of their home states, or of their favorite film stars, such as Oklahoma, Florida or Betty Grable. The French lining the streets cheered us on, shouting enthusiastically, "Vive la Oklahoma!" or "Vive la Florida!" or even "Vive la Betty Grable!" One truck had no name on its hood but an anti-freeze sticker was still visible. The French cheered on, "Vive la Prestone!"

We set up pup tents and tried to orient ourselves to the new, gloomy surroundings. All the division was being assembled, and supplies and weapons were being moved up. After a few days, early one morning we were told to pack our gear for a ten-mile march. "You�re going to relieve the 4th Division," an officer informed us. The 4th was in an advanced position, and had penetrated the first defenses of the Siegfried Line, so we were taking over a vital, advanced sector of the front. This was October 4th. As we marched closer and closer to the front, I began to see the big concrete pillboxes the Germans had built and used against advancing American troops. The concrete walls of these pill-boxes were six to ten feet thick! Although we were lucky, in a way, to be relieving a division, not having to fight for our new positions, I was beginning to realize the war wasn�t over, that German defenses were formidable, and that hard fighting was ahead. Melvin and I knew the future would be tough; we knew it would take guts, luck and hard fighting to survive. We aimed to survive."

This info comes from a book titled "Foot Soldier"
Author is Fred Felder
Bill Wise Printers
Orangeburg, South Carolina

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