Did you know?
Two weeks ago, the “Did You Know” column followed Ira Lee Taylor across France and through the Battle of Bastogne in Belgium during World War II. Today we pick up Taylor and the Survey Section of the US Army’s 4th Division, Headquarters Battery — Artillery at the Huertgen Forest in Germany, known as “The Death Factory.”
The Battle for Huertgen Forest has been described as a wild place where fighting took place under deplorable conditions.
“And we were shelled,” he said. “We could hear those big old shells coming by, great big old things, and every night about 12 o’clock midnight you’d hear about four rounds or five and we called him ‘Bed Check Charlie.’ And that went on for about a month.”
There was a hospital near the building where Taylor’s outfit set up. He remembers the medic trucks rushing wounded GIs to that hospital nonstop for a month.
At least one night, the German girls and women came downstairs to try to escape the shelling along with Taylor’s outfit. “Artillery shells — two of them — had dropped right there in the front yard and knocked a big old hole, shot up our two vehicles… cut every tire. One night it hit the side of the house.
“And booby traps, and shoe mines, if you tripped one, you’d jump up in the air and it’d blow your foot off!”
“They didn’t have roads in there,” Taylor said, “so the infantry was carrying wounded and bodies out and bringing supplies in, walking back and forth. And sometimes they killed so many boys that they just threw them in a hole and covered them up. They couldn’t get them out. And some days the lines wouldn’t move more than ten feet. We lost half of our Division in there, and our Artillery was way on the outside… shelling when they could.”
The American GIs questioned why the Battle of Huertgen Forest was fought. The only explanation they were ever given was that it was a shortcut to the Cologne Plain.
After losing half its men in the Battle of Huertgen Forest, the 4th Division went back to Luxembourg to draw new men and equipment. But no sooner had they left Luxembourg than they found themselves in the Battle of the Bulge.
“We were scattered out along 32 or 35 miles,” Taylor said. “We were under strength… and the Germans… broke through and it snowed. It snowed for a week. And the days were just as foggy and they’d said, ‘Front is fluid.’ They didn’t know where they [the Germans] were. They didn’t know. And so the Germans hit us there and I believe that was in December.”
“They had us surrounded!” Taylor said. “We thought they were going to wipe us all out — the 4th Division. And that fog, heavy fog set in and it snowed and we couldn’t — the Germans didn’t know where we were and we didn’t know where they were… Things looked bad.”
“Snow on the ground and Christmas Day we got up and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky!” he said. “It was just as pretty as it could be! And here came the Air Corps — bombers and fighter planes — they just came wave after wave after wave. We went out in that snow, just jumping up and down up there hollering. Imagine! And that’s what broke the battle. I can still see myself out there in that snow jumping up and down and hollering, ‘Go get ‘em! Go get ‘em!”
The war was finally winding down. Taylor’s outfit crossed the Rhine River at Worms on a pontoon bridge. He compared it to walking on a swinging bridge. On the German side of the river were thousands of grape vines. It was in the Rhine Valley that they crossed the Siegfried Line — a line of defenses on Germany’s side of the river.
“Well, anyway, they had a bunch of what they called ‘dragon’s teeth’ made of cement and about that high and that thick and sloping like that and there were about a dozen rows of them,” he said. He recalls seeing concrete buildings all up and down the line where the Germans had 50 caliber machine guns. They were painted green. “They were hard to see!” he said.
Taylor and some other men from his outfit went to see the Siegfried Line one day. “We were up there looking them over and a Jeep piles up a little ways on down there below us… Here comes old Ike [Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower], walking up. He came up there and he said, ‘How are you boys? What you boys doing?’ just talking to us like he was just another GI! He says, ‘You boys getting everything you want? Do you need anything?’ And we said, ‘We need to get our overcoats in.’ We said, ‘We’re about to freeze!’ He said to us, ‘Good. You’ll get them in a day or two.’ By cracky, we had them in another day or two.”
From Worms they went to Stuttgart in southern France. “We ended up about 50 miles this side of the Swiss border in the Alps,” he said. “And we were going along there in the Alps for miles and they were snow-capped. They were real beautiful.”
“And the war was ending down then,” he said, “because we’d be going down the road and we’d see about a dozen Germans sitting out there beside the road. They’d have their rifles stacked and they’d have a white cloth tied on it or on their shoulders, you know. And we’d just breeze right on by them. They were hungry. But we knew the MPs would come by and pick them up.”
“But that’s when the war ended. We’d crossed the Danube River on the way to Austria. We were nine miles from the Austrian border on V-E [Victory in Europe] Day.”
That was May 8, 1945. Taylor recalls his outfit going all the way back to Havre, France, by truck when the war ended.
They stopped near the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau in southern Germany. The Allies had liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Some of the men in his outfit were going to see the camp and asked Taylor if he wanted to go. “No, I don’t want to go,” he said. “I wish to heck I would’ve gone now. But they came back and they said that the furnaces were still running. When they went in there, they just opened up those big old buildings there and they were full of girls from Paris and Holland and all those places.”
“And I remember it was a big old locomotive in there they had parked — the Air Force had knocked it out — and cattle cars, all lined up and everywhere there was a camp, women, women, women,” Taylor said.
I asked Mr. Taylor if the American public knew about the concentration camps or did they only find out when the troops got in there. He said, “We didn’t know a thing about it! We’d never heard anything about it! It surprised us.”
The 4th Division then stopped in Bamberg, Germany to have a troop review. “I remember when we went by, they were playing ‘As the Caissons Go Rolling Along.’ You hear those songs, and they make chills run up and down your back.”
Taylor was in five campaigns in the war in Europe: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes (also known as “The Battle of the Bulge”) and Central Europe. Before the war ended, he was promoted to the rank of Corporal.
He got to Havre, France, on July 2, 1945, and sailed for home on an American ship. It took only seven days to get to New York City because the seas were calm.
When the ship arrived in New York and Taylor and his shipmates got to see the Statue of Liberty again. He recalls that everybody crowded on the statue’s side of the ship so they could see it. The captain came over the loud speaker and said, “Move over! Move over! Some of you scatter out! Scatter out! Move! Move! We’re listing 30 degrees!” Taylor said it was true — the ship was listing to one side with everyone trying to see the Statue of Liberty.
Taylor came to North Carolina, but he didn’t come to Harrisburg to see his mother. He headed straight for the Burgaw and Wallace area in the eastern part of the state to see, Essie, his girlfriend of five years. In a few days, they were in Wilmington getting married. That marriage lasted 48 years and is a whole other story. You can imagine how surprised Taylor’s mother was when he finally came home two weeks later with a new bride by his side.
Taylor had a 30-day furlough when he got to New York. He had orders to report to Camp Butner to be trained for the invasion of Japan. He was on a bus heading for Camp Butner when it came over the radio that the Japanese had agreed to an unconditional surrender. World War II was finally over, and Taylor was free to come back to Harrisburg and live out his life as a good citizen.
The 4th Division suffered 22,660 casualties in World War II. It suffered the third highest number of casualties of any United States military Division in the war. Taylor considers himself fortunate to have come home alive.
• Interview with Mr. Ira Lee Taylor on February 24, 2007.
• http://www.historyshots.com/usarmy/backstory.cfm for some statistics