Written by Cyril Smith KBS Friday, 20 November 2009 00:00
As 1944 started, Jim Gray was a young man of 19 years growing up in Queens Village. He had started to attend Queens College but when the draft notice arrived, Jim knew his world had changed. Just how much he never would have guessed. He would finish the war in a German Stalag POW camp, part of the largest surrender of American troops in the European theater.
America does not really write much history about its total defeats, when large units are forced to surrender on the field of battle. But there have been some.
Usually they happen under extraordinary circumstance, such as Bataan (the largest surrender of American troops ever) because the Philippines were cut off in that initial Japanese triumphant surge.
In Europe, few have ever heard of the defeat we suffered at the Snow Eifel. Even the name is new to most readers; but it was a case of an entire American Division (about as large as Garden City’s population) being overrun, surrounded and then surrendered.
American military histories label the final outcome of this overall battle as a victory, The Battle of the Bulge, without really acknowledging what caused a “bulge” in the American lines. Jim Gray can tell you firsthand, it was his unit, the 106th Division, the Golden Lions, that absorbed that massive assault that Hitler had put his last hopes on to defeat the Allies.
This attack was so complete and so well managed by an experienced German military machine, that the book on the history of this battle is titled “Death of A Division.”
Jim’s journey to that Armageddon was typical for a draftee in 1944. He completed basic training and was spotted as officer potential, then assigned to a pre-officer training class. However, the horrific casualties occurring as the Allies fought their way out of Normandy against fierce German resistance, created an insatiable meat grinder need for men. Jim’s pre-officer training class was terminated as the men were needed as replacements.
Jim’s transfer was to the Golden Lions, mostly a Midwest division, completing its training in Indiana. After several weeks of advanced training with them, they shipped off to France. By that time in Europe, the Allies had pushed the Wehrmacht back to the German border. There the Germans held firm: defeating an airborne assault at Arnhem (A Bridge Too Far) and mauling several American divisions at the Hurtgen Forest.
The German military had been weakened but they knew how to wage ground combat superbly. So the 106th Division was placed into a quiet sector of the Ardennes on the border, the same area that the Germans used to flank the supposedly impregnable Maginot line in 1940.
The first strong hints of winter arrived as the Golden Lions did, taking up the German pillboxes, bunkers and other defense points on the Snow Eifel, a high wooded plateau on the border by the important city of St. Vith, France. Cloud cover moved in, snow flurries arrived and one could hear that no aircraft were flying.
As a rifleman in one of the advance positions, Jim and his colleagues worried about German patrols and raiding parties but things were quiet. In retrospect, Jim now realizes too quiet. What would have been more worrisome if known was from secret meteorological stations, the Germans knew a prolonged spell of bad weather would keep the Allies’ planes grounded.
In one of the worst failures of intelligence, the American army never realized the Germans had massed a strong panzer and infantry army directly opposite the Golden Lions. In the pre-dawn hour of Dec. 16, a tremendous German artillery barrage inundated the entire 106th lines. Between the noise of exploding shells, heavy diesel engines could be heard on nearby roads, German panzers were flanking them.
Directly in front of Jim’s foxhole, the German machine guns kept him pinned down with bullets clipping branches off trees and bushes mere inches above his position. He knew this was covering fire and that somewhere out there German soldiers were infiltrating their lines. The fire became so intense and the German advance on their flanks so inexorable that Jim’s officers ordered a pull back to headquarters.
As they scrambled back, they could hear firing that was even behind their lines; their worse fear was being realized: they were being surrounded.
At headquarters, Jim’s platoon and the others that made it back, many missing quite a few of their men, dug in for the next assault designed to overrun them. As Jim’s platoon shivered in the cloudy damp weather, they could hear the battle far to their rear. Glimpses at the hectic headquarters were not reassuring; it was obvious that on a large scale things were not going well for the Golden Lions.
Troops came stumbling in, some trembling in fear, some resolute, some anguished, some defiant. They related stories of wraith-like German infantry steadily rolling up inexperienced American units. They were cut off; unless help came they were finished. They then heard from the grapevine that their main supply point of St. Vith, miles to the rear, had fallen. There were to be no reinforcements, no aircraft to assist them, as an infantry division they had no tanks, and much of their artillery was lost, it was likely the next assault would be close quarter and hand-to-hand combat.
Among some, there was a sense of imminent panic but Jim’s platoon held firm. As he prepared his M1 rifle and rounds, laid out his grenades, checked his bayonet, Jim made peace with himself.
Then a quieting of the German artillery on their position and a renewed flurry of activity at headquarters gave them a sense something was up. Still it was a surprise when word was given that the entire regiment would be surrendering, along with a sister regiment some distance away. The third regiment had been assaulted and scattered. Jim vividly recalls an American officer, a West Point grad, muttering in disbelief that this was happening.
The Germans had achieved their initial goal of splitting the Allied army; they had cracked the American line. Their plan was now to capture the town of Bastogne en route to taking Antwerp and rolling up to the English Channel, creating a full victory or the complete stalemate that Hitler sought.
Of course, Jim and his colleagues did not know the grand strategy; they only knew amongst griping, disbelief, anger and tears that they were to stack arms on the ground, form up and become prisoners of war. The German infantry that came, ghost-like from the woods and in very large numbers, to take command of them were a combination of hard-looking veterans and young kids. But they were professional and led the long columns of surrendered Americans down the snowy paths and roads to a railhead.
On the road, Jim marched past some German armor resting by the side of the road. Looking up he was astounded on how young the German tankers looked (remember he was himself 19) resting by their huge panzers- these were boys of 15 and 16 perhaps even less. Their faces were youthful but their eyes showed lengthy combat experience.
The rest of the journey was uneventful; they were shipped by train to a POW camp. The unending cloudy weather prevented any Allied air friendly fire on the train. It was only when that weather finally broke, and the 101st Airborne Division made a heroic stand at Bastogne, that the Germans ran low on fuel and supplies and the German assault was discontinued. The defeat on the Snow Eifel would be sanitized to become the Battle of the Bulge. General McAuliffe’s famous reply of “Nuts” to German surrender demands at Bastogne would hold sway over the 106th heroic actions in slowing that initial advance.
But again for all Jim knew as they traveled to the POW camp, the Germans could have been on the English Channel. In a strange quirk of holiday fate, Jim was marched into the Stalag camp on Christmas Day; he would remain there until Easter Sunday when the American army arrived.
As the months unfolded there, Jim heard that there was serious disagreement between the officers on the surrender and that the American high command was placing blame on the Division and its leadership. But Jim knew the difference between armchair analysis and what had happened on the ground. Jim held up okay as a POW, although some did not; his main complaint was that, especially towards the end as all Germany collapsed, the food rations were getting mighty thin.
Jim realizes his unit did everything that was asked of them; it was their misfortune to be new and inexperienced when a tough, experienced opponent chose their sector to punch through. He proudly has his POW automobile license plates and attends some 106th Division reunions. He noted that a senior German officer at the Snow Eifel battle recently wrote to the Division alumni newsletter that he and the other Germans in that assault recognized how well the 106th had held out and fought, confirming that if the surrender had not happened, the unit would have been annihilated.
Once released from POW camp, Jim returned to America. His family was joyful, for many weeks they only knew he was missing-in-action before his captured status was known. Jim’s father, who had been a combat engineer in New York 27th Division during the First World War, the same that Garden City’s Medal of Honor (posthumously) winner William Bradford Turner was in, was especially glad. He knew battlefields.
Jim later married the lovely Ann, moved to Garden City on Brompton Road, and developed a fine career in advertising in New York City. He was tapped by then-County Executive Eugene Nickerson for a public relations post on his executive staff. Now retired, Jim enjoys watching baseball and seeing his daughter and grandchildren when they come up from New Orleans.