I learned about the German Death March from one of my listeners of my Radio Show, THE VETERAN NEXT DOOR.
The listener asked me to interview John Shell of South Knoxville. He passed way a few years ago, but left his story with me.
He was in the 106th Infantry Division in December of 1944. A green outfit ordered to march to St. Vith to relieve some frontline troops needing R&R. Their winter gear had not caught up with them, as they marched they could see the hills they were to defend. The slow drizzling rain began to turn to snow.
Mr. Shell was ordered to scout out some clanking noises over a ridge. As he did so, one of his buddies on the patrol, pulled on his shirt and pointed into the sky. 1500 German Paratroopers were coming down right on top of them. They had no choice but to die or surrender. It made no sense to die in a fight they could not win, and the same fate awaited hundreds of soldiers in the 106th. Imagine the onslaught of the German 88’s, and the tanks, crack troops, and the blitzkrieg of violence all at once. Mr. Shell was forced to march for days in to Germany in -17 degree weather, with 200 other American Soldiers who had to share 30 pounds of potatoes each day for food. The starvation and degradation of being finally put in a train car, standing room only for days, with no bathroom relief, no sanitation.
At the end of the interview, Mr. Shell pulled the covers back to show me his legs. His thighs and legs were emaciated even 70 years later. His muscles had disappeared because of the starvation.
An interesting item, is he felt no animosity towards the Germans as a people.
Other Americans in the 99th Division near St. Vith had a chance to fight back, they lost and joined Mr. Shell in the death march.
In the pre-dawn hours of December 16, 1944, as the Germans massed to launch their offensive, an untested eighteen-man platoon found themselves in the hamlet of Lanzerath, less than a mile from the Siegfried Line, assigned temporarily to plug a strategic gap in the Allied lines. Neither trained nor equipped to fight as infantry, they had been assured that they would soon be relieved by an infantry unit. As fate would have it, they stood squarely in the path of the main German assault. Ordered to hold their ground at all costs, the platoon withstood a series of German assaults throughout the day. Near dark and out of ammunition, they were finally overrun and captured. Against overwhelming odds, they held up the German advance for twelve hours and gave the remainder of the 99th Division time to regroup. In the following days, the Division would blunt the German offensive on the North shoulder of the Bulge.
No one knew this story until Historians uncovered their valor. You can read about the fight, and the Death March in a book called THE LONGEST WINTER. I have copies available for World War Two enthusiasts at $8.
If you read their story, you would stand and put your hand on your heart at the start of a football game.