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American Soldiers' Remarkable Escape from Berga Concentration Camp
By Mark Felton
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Hold the Line!
Remember your orders are to hold at all costs. No retreat, nobody comes back.
Maj. Gen. Norman Cota
Take cover!” was the first order of the day on the morning of December 16, 1944. Hans Kasten had been asleep in his bivouac not far from the hamlet of Nachtmanderscheid, on the road to the strategically vital town of Clervaux in the northern tip of Luxembourg. The veteran Twenty-Eighth Infantry Division was guarding the border between Luxembourg and Germany in a heavily forested, hilly part of Europe called the Ardennes. Since landing in Normandy in June 1944, the Allied armies had pushed the Germans back to the very borders of the Reich, and were preparing to break into Germany itself in the coming spring. Roads through the Ardennes were few and the terrain considered unsuitable for offensive actions, so the Americans were satisfied to hold the region with the minimum of troops while concentrating their forces on more vulnerable sectors in France. Indeed, the area was considered so quiet that green units were sent there to acclimatize to conditions at the front, and battle-weary divisions rested.
Kasten’s unit, the 110th Infantry Regiment, was a part of the Twenty-Eight, one of these American divisions that had seen extensive action and had been sent to the Ardennes to rest and refit. Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, the men wore a red keystone patch on their shoulders to commemorate the Keystone State. The Germans had christened this symbol the “Bloody Bucket” for the punishment the Germans had dealt out to the American division in the Hürtgen Forest, and the death and mayhem that they had dealt out in kind.1 The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest had been an American attempt to break into Germany in late 1944 that had turned into a slaughter against a well-prepared enemy and ended in stalemate. After the breakout from Normandy in August 1944, it had looked as though the Germans were beaten, but now, in December, they had managed to stabilize their front line and could still give the Allies a bloody nose. What no one in the Allied high command expected was a full-scale offensive from the Germans so late in the war, and certainly not in the depths of winter in the unsuitable Ardennes.
To the north of the Twenty-Eighth Division’s position was the Belgian part of the Ardennes, garrisoned by more American divisions. With more than twenty inches of snow on the ground, Kasten, exhausted after coming off watch, had been huddled beneath sparse army blankets trying to catch some shut-eye when all hell had broken loose.
Kasten involuntarily reached up and touched a livid-looking scar that ran in a jagged line like a lightning bolt across his forehead. He had seen the sharp end of war long before the Ardennes, on the other side of the world. The scar was a memento of a white-hot shard of shrapnel that had struck him while he was aboard a troop transport in December 1941. Only instead of being German, this particular fragment of bomb casing had come courtesy of the Japanese. Kasten’s background and life journey had been complex and surprising.
He was born in Honolulu in August 1916 to well-to-do German parents who immigrated from Bremen. He had been raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, graduating with a degree in art history from the University of Wisconsin.2 But his freethinking and defiant attitude led him to take the unusual step of “retiring” straight out of college and go “off to the South Seas.”3 He’d joined the Merchant Marine and shipped out to the Philippines in the pay of a dredging company.
“The best thing I did was that I retired after college,” Kasten said. “Everybody talks about what they’re going to do after they retire but when they finally do retire, they’re too old to do anything and they’ve lost all their dreams.”4
At sea when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, his ship put in to Fiji and then headed to Brisbane, Australia, arriving on Christmas Eve.
America needed young men, and after listening to a rousing speech from the US ambassador, Kasten volunteered to return to the States to help the war effort. He and many other young Americans boarded a returning troop transport bound for San Diego. Shorthanded, the captain asked for volunteers to man the vessel’s antiaircraft guns. Kasten found himself operating the port aft gun.
It wasn’t long before Kasten, still a civilian, was in the thick of the action. A lone Japanese aircraft bombed his ship while they were steaming through the Tasman Sea. One minute Kasten was hammering away at the enemy aircraft, the next he was waking up in the ship’s sick bay with one hell of a headache and sixteen stitches holding together a nasty gash across his forehead.5
After arriving at Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago, Kasten had been assigned to the Transportation Corps. But due to his high intelligence and varied life experience, his superiors attempted to have him reassigned as a teacher at an Officer Candidate School. Kasten refused the transfer, stating clearly that he had joined the US Army to fight, not teach.6 Shipped over to England, Kasten found himself part of a unit that was tasked with unloading and distributing military supplies in the great port of Liverpool. Disgusted with the level of corruption and thieving that he witnessed, he volunteered for the infantry. Retrained at Tidworth Barracks, Kasten was the best marksman in his company.7
* * *
Now England was but a distant memory as Kasten’s company sector was subjected to an intense German mortar barrage in the Ardennes Forest. The GIs tumbled into dugouts and foxholes, trying to make themselves as small as possible as the bombs detonated all across the position, blowing down trees and throwing up clumps of frozen dirt and ice high into the overcast sky. White-hot shards of shrapnel scythed down on those too slow to reach cover. Kasten, a veteran of D-Day and the terrible Battle of the Hürtgen Forest—where tens of thousands of Americans and Germans had fought themselves to a stalemate through fifty square miles of dense, soggy woodland near the German city of Aachen—knew what was coming next. All the veterans in the unit knew. When the artillery fire slackened, an infantry attack would usually follow. The veterans in the Twenty-Eighth had witnessed this happen so many times, their reactions were almost automatic.
Kasten was his rifle squad’s Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) gunner. John Kopczinski, his best friend since basic training in Tidworth, volunteered to be Kasten’s assistant gunner—his job was to carry the weapon’s stack of magazines and help Kasten keep the gun in action.8
Running uphill in a crouch, Kasten, a tall, lean man with his distinctive Vandyke moustache and beard and piercing blue eyes, lugged the heavy BAR with him while Pfc. Kopczinski followed with the ammunition. Both men charged forward, almost oblivious to the occasional mortar bomb that still landed around them, before they flung themselves into a small bunker constructed out of a hole in the ground covered with tree trunks for rudimentary overhead protection.
All along the line other riflemen and machine gunners jumped into foxholes and dugouts, ready for anything the Germans could fling at them. Charging up the slope close to Kasten was nineteen-year-old Pfc. William Shapiro, a combat medic from the East Bronx in New York City. Like Kasten, Shapiro was the product of immigrant parents who had moved to the United States for a better life, in Shapiro’s case escaping anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia. Now, these same families had sent their sons back to Europe to fight Nazism. Drafted at eighteen, Shapiro had trained at Walter Reed General Hospital before landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy that summer.
Shapiro’s green steel helmet displayed red crosses inside white circles, marking him as a noncombatant; he also wore a Red Cross brassard. But artillery and mortars do not differentiate, and before he reached cover a shell exploded close by with a blinding flash. Shapiro was blown several feet by the blast and landed in the snow nearby, unconscious. Other medics and riflemen managed to drag his limp body to cover before he was evacuated back to the regimental aid station at the castle town of Clervaux.
Hans Kasten slammed a twenty-round magazine into the BAR and cocked the weapon, hastily setting up its bipod on the bunker’s lip. He glanced at Kopczinski, who propped his M1 carbine against the frozen side of the bunker. His friend smiled grimly before both men turned to stare out of the fire slit, awaiting the attack that they knew must come at any second.
Kasten was older than the average dogface, and so much more experienced in life, so many of the young GIs in the outfit looked to this fiercely independent, unorthodox man for guidance or advice. But perhaps his independent style and strong opinions were not to everyone’s taste, particularly those of his superiors, because Kasten hadn’t been promoted beyond private first class. There wasn’t much call for enlisted men with freethinking, defiant attitudes. He even looked different from the average GI, with the ends of his moustache waxed and turned up “German-style.”9 He was, put simply, a man of the world, and older than his twenty-seven years suggested.
The Twenty-Eighth Infantry Division, a part of the US VIII Corps, had a simple task—conduct aggressive defense within the Corps zone. The Corps units consisted of, from north to south, the 106th Infantry Division, the Twenty-Eighth Division, the Ninth Armored Division (minus two-thirds of its strength), and the Fourth Infantry Division. The Twenty-Eighth was assigned a portion of the Schnee Eifel, a heavily wooded extension of the Ardennes running along the Belgian-German frontier that consisted of high, windswept plateaus, deep, snow-filled ravines, and ghostly, fog-shrouded forest valleys. The Twenty-Eighth Division’s three regiments, with Kasten’s 110th Infantry in the center, guarded a twenty-five-mile-long bow-shaped front covering the Our and Sauer Rivers. Maj. Gen. Norman “Dutch” Cota’s headquarters were located twelve miles back at the small town of Wiltz, with VIII Corps HQ a farther twelve miles west at the strategically vital crossroads town of Bastogne.10
Prior to the morning of December 16, 1944, the Ardennes had been a sector of the US lines where no serious fighting was expected. It was very thinly held. The assigned divisions were either “green” units, like the 106th Division, learning on the job by undertaking small patrol actions against the Germans, or shattered and exhausted units like the Twenty-Eighth that had been pulled out of the Hürtgen Forest meat grinder after suffering crippling casualties, their surviving veterans stiffened by the arrival of plenty of replacements. Either way, the Ardennes was a low priority for the Americans. The Allies were gearing up to break into Germany and cross the Rhine—and the last thing they expected was a massive German offensive. The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest had surprised the Allies—German resistance had been fierce and skillful, but surely overwhelming American and British pressure would be brought to bear somewhere else along the Siegfried Line and the hastily reassembled German defenses overcome.
This Allied belief in an imminent German military collapse unexpectedly changed in December. American divisions found themselves assailed by Adolf Hitler’s last desperate gamble to wrest back the strategic initiative on the Western Front—the well-named Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Fog). In an extraordinarily short period of time since the German Army had been defeated in Normandy, retreated through France, and crossed the Siegfried Line into Germany, Hitler had managed to assemble 250,000 men and more than one thousand tanks and assault guns. He was intent on slashing through the thinly held Ardennes, where he had surprised the French and British so memorably in the summer of 1940, and strike across the Meuse River to capture the strategically vital Allied supply port of Antwerp. In one stroke, Hitler believed that he would split the Americans from their British allies and cut off supplies to three Allied armies, with disastrous results. The entire plan depended upon surprise, speed, and bad weather. Two great tank armies would cross the rivers that bordered Belgium and Luxembourg in the Ardennes and surge forward to take the vitally important road junctions at St. Vith, blocked by the 106th Division, and Bastogne, the approaches via the towns of Marnach and Clervaux controlled by Cota’s Twenty-Eighth. From there, the roads to the Meuse would be wide open. The operation was timed for December, when the area would be deep under snow and bad weather would ground the Allied air forces, which had aerial superiority over the battlefield and made any offensive operations nearly impossible.
The Allies had also lost the advantage of Ultra, the top-secret decrypts of German signals traffic generated by the Enigma code that had been broken by British scientists at Bletchley Park in England. Though they were usually fully aware of Hitler’s plans before he launched them, because the Germans had been forced back behind their own border, they had stopped using radios and instead reverted to the telephone network, which the Allies could not penetrate. Therefore, Hitler achieved complete tactical surprise on the morning of December 16.
* * *
Hans Kasten let out a loud curse as he peered over the lip of his position downslope toward the Our River. It looked like half the German Army was surging across, gray-and-white-clad figures in the hundreds fanning out on the American side of the river, many firing as they ran or hurling stick grenades. The Germans had crossed using rubber boats under a smokescreen, while bridge-building units went to work trying to create crossings of the following heavy armor and supply vehicles.
Kasten quickly shouldered his BAR and zeroed in on the nearest running figures. He began working through magazines at a prodigious rate, his rounds peppering the ground all around the advancing Germans, knocking them down in clumps.11 Return fire thudded into the hillside, kicking up spurts of snow all around Kasten or cracking past his head as the Germans dashed from cover to cover, firing rifles and machine guns in an effort to suppress the deadly American return fire.
Every few seconds Kasten would release another empty magazine, the BAR’s muzzle steaming in the cold air, then turn and yell at Kopczinski for more ammo. Riflemen in foxholes to his left and right hammered away with their M1 Garands, the sounds of shooting constantly interspersed with metallic pings as empty ammo clips automatically ejected from their weapons. In this manner, the 110th Regiment would stand firm against all comers till the following day, severely disrupting the German timetable for reaching the Meuse.
* * *
At Company I, 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, Pfc. Joseph F. “Mish Kid” Littell and his comrades had been strangely left alone by the Germans since their great offensive had broken. Littell, a good-looking, clean-cut twenty-year-old with neat, side-parted dark brown hair, had acquired his unusual nickname because he had been born in Hankow, China, to American missionary parents in 1924.12 He shared something in common with Hans Kasten, though the two had yet to meet: Littell’s father was appointed bishop of Honolulu in 1930, fourteen years after Kasten was born there.
Joe Littell had had an unsettled early childhood, common in missionary families, changing schools and countries often. Then, at age twelve, he had been sent to boarding school in Delaware. Unlike many of the other grunts in the 422nd foxholes, Littell had already savored Europe before the war. In 1938, he had been selected by his headmaster as one of thirty young boys from thirty American schools who would be sent to Germany on an exchange program with the Nazi government. The idea was to foster greater understanding between Germany and the United States, and the visits were organized by American-German friendship societies. A reluctant Littell had attended an elite National Socialist Education Academy at Köslin, two hundred miles east of Berlin on the Baltic Sea between January and June 1939, shortly after Hitler had annexed Czechoslovakia and Austria and not long before he invaded Poland and started World War II. Littell, who was repulsed by the politics of Nazi Germany, reluctantly wore the Hitler Youth uniform, complete with swastika armband, and got plenty of practice “Heiling the Führer of the Third Reich.” Even more incredibly, his graduation diploma was personally signed by no less a dignitary than Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the second most powerful man in Germany.13
Now, more than five years later, he was facing his former school chums across the battlefield, his time in prewar Germany giving him an excellent grasp of the language and an abhorrence of Nazism. It was something that Littell would share with Hans Kasten, who had also studied in Germany before the war, and had memorably even met Hitler while staying at a youth hostel. Kasten had briefly spoken to Hitler, and formed the opinion that the Führer was already quite mad.
The 422nd Infantry’s frontage faced wide, snowy fields with tall stands of dense, gloomy fir trees beyond. Commanded by one of the youngest colonels in the US Army, George Descheneaux, the 422nd’s regimental headquarters was located in a gasthaus in the town of Schlausenbach just behind the lines. The 106th Division commander, Maj. Gen. Alan W. Jones, was forty minutes by jeep behind the front at the crossroads town of St. Vith, which, along with Bastogne, was to be held at all costs by the Americans in order to prevent German armored forces from exploiting the road network toward the Meuse River and beyond.
German artillery fire had erupted quite suddenly at 0530 hours on December 16. Several dozen men from various 106th Division companies were caught out of cover. Pfc. Peter Iosso had been making his way wearily back to his position when the barrage went up. An Italian American from Newark, New Jersey, Iosso had turned nineteen just two months before. He was serving in the 422nd Infantry, assigned to the Company E weapons platoon, where he manned a .30-caliber medium machine gun. Normally he would have been with his weapon, nicely ensconced inside a log bunker covering the ridge, but he had been detailed to a combat patrol ordered to insert itself into the ground in front of the American position the night before. Iosso, a little guy, was wading through deep snow back toward his position, thoroughly worn out and soaking wet, his boots sodden, a pair of spare socks drying in his armpits, when a shell from the German’s opening barrage exploded close by, knocking him unconscious.
For an hour Joe Littell and his comrades had pressed themselves into their holes beside their bivouac positions behind the ridge; the ridgeline was only thinly held when there was no alert on. German artillery rounds had whined overhead, sounding like freight trains ripping through the heavens before landing somewhere behind them with booming explosions. The ground had shaken continuously like an earthquake; the American soldiers covered their heads with their arms or gritted their teeth and huddled lower in their holes. More than one man prayed out loud as the firestorm of metal and explosives grew in intensity. Occasionally, a shell dropped short, throwing up a geyser of snow, mud, and rock close by. In the distance, the reports of the German guns rumbled like summer thunder, and soon a new and far more frightening sound had joined the cacophony—a high-pitched screaming that was enough to curdle blood. German Nebelwerfer rocket batteries added their peculiar projectiles to the opening barrage of the great German offensive. The GIs soon had a name for them—“screaming meemies.”14
Close behind Littell’s position, the Company I commander, Capt. David Ormiston, slammed down the field telephone receiver he had been holding to his ear while trying to hear the voice on the other end over the whine and crash of incoming shells. The line had suddenly gone dead while he had been talking to battalion headquarters. The artillery fire had probably severed the line. But a few minutes later a runner arrived from headquarters. The messenger quickly dismounted from a snow-and-mud-splattered jeep and rushed into Ormiston’s command post, a stone farmhouse hidden among the trees. The messenger ducked through the house’s doorway, flinching when another shell landed close by, and quickly handed the note to one of the sergeants who was crouched near Ormiston.
“Message from Regiment, sir,” the NCO yelled after glancing at the paper in his hand. Ormiston glanced up from a tactical map that he had been examining.
“Read it, Sergeant,” he yelled back, ducking when a shell landed close enough to spray the roof of the house with falling debris.
“Go on combat alert for a German ground attack and await further orders,” the sergeant called.15 His eyes locked with Ormiston’s. The news was electrifying, but also ominous. Ormiston knew that his regiment, the 422nd Infantry, like every other American unit, was spread mightily thin along this section of the line.
The 422nd was one of three regiments that constituted the 106th Infantry Division, a fresh unit that had arrived from England and been sent to the “quiet” Ardennes sector to gain some experience. Arriving at St. Vith, six miles behind the front on December 10 after an exhausting 470-mile journey in unheated trucks, the division’s three regiments had settled into prepared positions vacated by other units.
They were deployed abreast with the 422nd Infantry covering the northern sector, two thousand yards west of the Siegfried Line on the western slopes of the Schnee Eifel. The regiment’s left flank touched the village of Schlausenbach, the right meeting the 423rd Infantry at Oberlascheid. The 423rd’s lines extended southwest to the town of Bleialf. Meanwhile, the 424th Infantry covered the south, from Bleialf to around Winterspelt, tying in with Hans Kasten’s veteran 28th “Bloody Bucket” Division.
Division HQ was at St. Vith, where Major General Jones had his 106th headquarters inside a large convent school. The town was a vital crossroads that the Germans were determined to capture and exploit quickly.16
In the five days that the 422nd was in the line before the German assault, cases of trench foot had skyrocketed. The special snow overboots issued to the troops had been mistakenly left behind in England, so the GIs endured wet feet in the deep snow as their ordinary combat boots struggled to cope. Sick men taken off the line were not replaced, as no fresh troops were available, further thinning the already threadbare American positions. The GIs shivered in the frigid air, as no proper winter uniforms had been issued, either—the men simply wore every item of clothing they possessed beneath their long green greatcoats or combat jackets and further wrapped themselves up in green blankets like Victorian old ladies. But the cold was bone-chilling and constant, with the men rotating from their bivouacs in warmer farmhouses and barns up to the ridgeline bunkers and foxholes for guard duty. Morale was low. Even more ominously, the units were short of mortar ammunition, and they possessed no tank support, which would later prove critical.
Captain Ormiston glanced back at the tactical map with its colored transparent overlays indicating the positions occupied by his platoons and the other companies and battalions in the regiment. Like elsewhere along the Ardennes front, the units were holding three or four times as much territory with the normal complement of men. A German push could roll right over them.
“Have the platoon commanders report to me at once,” Ormiston shouted, ducking involuntarily as another German shell landed close to the house, rocking it to its foundations and bringing down plaster from the ceiling like falling snow. Atop the ridgeline outside, the men of the 422nd gritted their teeth and braced themselves for a German assault.
* * *
Pfc. Peter Iosso came around to find that it was now fully light and his chin was bleeding. His feet were frozen and painful. Pulling himself up, he made his way to his company positions, where he reported for sick call. Iosso was sent immediately to the battalion aid station, where a medic patched up his lacerated chin.17 But things were starting to look grim when Iosso was told that he would not be evacuated back to the regimental hospital—it was too dangerous, because the Germans had started to press around behind the 106th Division’s position. Iosso and his comrades all along the snowy ridgeline and the occupied villages behind began to realize that they were in a very hazardous situation. The Germans—who, Iosso and his friends had been told repeatedly, were a spent, defeated force—were apparently advancing in huge numbers right through the American lines, and no one appeared to be able to stop them.
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