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U.S. Army 130th Station Hospital
December 21, 1945
The man with forty-five minutes to live cannot defend himself.
Gen. George S. Patton Jr. fears no one. But now he sleeps flat on his back in a hospital bed. His upper body is encased in plaster, the result of a car accident twelve days ago. Room 110 is a former utility closet, just fourteen feet by sixteen feet. There are no decorations, pictures on the walls, or elaborate furnishings—just the narrow bed, white walls, and a single high window. A chair has been brought in for Patton’s wife, Beatrice, who endured a long, white-knuckle flight over the North Atlantic from the family home in Boston to be at his bedside. She sits there now, crochet hook moving silently back and forth, raising her eyes every few moments to see if her husband has awakened.
Patton is fond of the finer things in life, and during the course of the Second World War, he made his battlefield headquarters in mansions, palaces, castles, and five-star hotels. But right now the sole concession to luxury is that, as a four-star general, Patton does not have to share his room with another patient.j
“Old Blood and Guts,” as his soldiers refer to the sixty-year-old legend, is a man both revered and feared. He has many enemies. Thus the need for the white-helmeted armed guards posted directly outside his door, at the end of the long hallway leading to the hospital lobby, and at every entrance and exit of the building. Nicknamed for their helmets, these “Snowdrops” protect Patton from the American journalists who have descended on this quiet former cavalry barracks in a great pack, ignoring the ongoing Nuremberg war crime trials so that they might write about Patton’s accident and expected recovery. General Patton “is getting well like a house afire,” the Associated Press reported four days ago, basing its information on the army’s daily 6:00 p.m. briefing about his condition. The story also reported that Patton sat up in bed, throwing off his injury “with a speed reminiscent of his wartime advances.”
The truth, however, is far different. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. is paralyzed from the neck down. Bones in his spine were dislocated when his car collided with an army truck full of drunken joyriding soldiers. Patton’s number three cervical vertebra was shattered, badly bruising his spinal cord. The good news is that he has recovered some movement in his extremities. The bad news is that his doctors believe it is highly unlikely he will walk again.
The reporters don’t know this, and so they work overtime to invade Patton’s privacy to see his amazing recovery for themselves. Some have tried to sneak into Room 110 dressed as nurses or orderlies. Others have bribed hospital staff with Hershey bars and nylons. Thanks to the sentries, however, all of them have failed. The closest call was when Richard H. O’Regan, the same reporter from the Associated Press who wrote of Patton’s remarkable recovery, cadged an interview with Patton’s nurse by pretending to be a patient. For his troubles, O’Regan was able to reveal to the world that doctors were allowing Patton to sip a thimbleful of whisky each night with dinner.
But reporters are the least of Patton’s worries. Throughout the course of the Second World War, he made many high-ranking enemies in Moscow, Berlin, London, and even Washington, DC. Patton’s fiery determination to speak the truth had many powerful men squirming not only during the war, but also afterward. He recently went on the record praising his former German enemies for their skills as soldiers, while also criticizing the Soviet Union as being a foe rather than an ally of the United States. Some have come to see Patton as a roadblock to world peace. And now Patton is at his most vulnerable, an easy target for any of those enemies.
A year ago to this day, Patton was in the midst of the most glorious battle of his career, racing across France with his beloved Third Army to rescue American forces pinned down at the crossroads in Bastogne, Belgium. The German army had long considered Patton to be the Allies’ greatest general, but the Battle of the Bulge, as it would become known, elevated him to legendary status throughout the world.
Now the swaggering, fearless renegade who prowled the front lines in a specially modified Dodge WC57 command car outfitted with a .50-caliber machine gun, siren, and two air horns to announce his arrival is hidden from the public. The George S. Patton who sleeps fitfully as Friday evening descends upon Heidelberg has a low pulse and a high fever. He drank eggnog for lunch and for a time felt upbeat, but his energy sagged before he finally fell asleep. A blood clot in his lungs made his face turn blue yesterday, and there are fears that another embolism might soon give him more trouble breathing.
The auto accident was brutal. Stitches and bruising cover Patton’s head from the bridge of his nose to the top of his scalp, marking the line where doctors sewed a Y-shaped flap of skin back onto his head. His face is gaunt from weight loss, and there are open holes in his cheekbones where doctors drilled into his face to insert steel fish hooks to hold his head in traction. But the general has a high pain threshold and has endured his sufferings with a smile and his usual blue humor. He banters with the nurses, who find him “cute.” Despite the fact that he has taken a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse in the past few days, the general still expects to be flown to Beverly General Hospital in Boston to further his recovery.
Beatrice has been with him around the clock, reading to him and calling for the doctors when he has a hard time catching his breath. She has a small room of her own down the hall, but is rarely there. The former heiress is a plain woman with a charismatic personality who wed Patton just a year after he graduated from West Point. Throughout their thirty-five-year marriage, Beatrice has braved the many hardships of military life for her beloved “Georgie,” never wavering in her love and support.
Suddenly Patton wakes up. His dark blue eyes flick back and forth, searching for signs of Beatrice.
There she is.
“Are you all right, Georgie?” Beatrice asks. She is every bit as fiery as her husband, a fearless equestrienne and accomplished sailor.
Patton gazes intently at his wife. She is the only woman he ever truly loved, and the mother of his three children. Beatrice leans forward to pat her husband’s hand.
“It’s so dark,” Patton says. “So late.” He closes his eyes and falls back to sleep.
Beatrice soon leaves for the hospital mess, where she hopes to grab a quick dinner before returning to the bedside, not knowing that her husband has just spoken his last words.
At 6:00 p.m. the urgent news is delivered for Beatrice to return immediately to Room 110.
But she is too late.
The general whom Nazi Germany feared more than any other, the former Olympic pentathlete, the cavalry officer who once hunted the infamous Pancho Villa across the desert plains of Mexico, and the warrior who publicly stated that he wanted one day to be killed “by the last bullet, in the last battle, of the last war,” is already dead.
The official military report states that Gen. George S. Patton Jr. “died at 1745, 21 December 1945.” A pulmonary embolism, brought on by his twelve days lying immobile, had weakened his heart. The official causes of death, as listed in the army adjutant general’s report, are “traumatic myelitis, transverse fourth cervical segment, pulmonary infarction, and myocardial failure, acute.”
There is no autopsy. His body is immediately taken to the hospital basement and placed inside what was once a horse stall, where his personal four-star flag is laid over the corpse. At Beatrice’s request, Patton is laid to rest at the American Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg, near the scene of his greatest battlefield triumph. Years later, when Beatrice falls from a horse and dies, she will be denied burial next to her husband, so her children will secretly smuggle her ashes into Europe and sprinkle them atop the grave.
It is a grave that may hold even deeper secrets.
The truth is, some do not believe Patton’s death was accidental. He had already survived several “accidents,” including the time his personal airplane was almost shot down by a British Spitfire fighter plane in April 1945—almost miraculously, Patton escaped injury.
But the auto crash that paralyzed Patton on December 9, 1945, was a far different story. The two-and-a-half-ton GMC army truck that collided with the general’s touring car suddenly and inexplicably veered from the opposite lane and into Patton—as if intentionally trying to injure the general. Both the man driving the truck and his two passengers quickly vanished after the incident. No criminal charges were ever filed. No accountability was ever recorded.
Also, both the official accident report and several key witnesses soon went missing. And most ominous of all, a former American intelligence operative confessed in October 1979 that he had planned and participated in the assassination of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.
It was a shocking assertion that was mostly ignored.
And so it was that a man who saw so much death on the battlefields of Europe and Africa officially died in a most pedestrian way.
The Hills above Metz, France
October 3, 1944
Private First Class Robert W. Holmlund is scared. He believes his life may be over at age twenty-one. The American assault is just two minutes old—two minutes that feel like twenty. The private serves as an explosives expert in the Third Army, Company B, Eleventh Infantry Regiment, Fifth Infantry Division. Holmlund is a student from the American heartland who left trade school to join the war. His senior commander is the most ferocious general on the Allied side, George S. Patton Jr. But unlike Patton, who now oversees his vast army from the safety of his headquarters twenty-five miles behind the front, Holmlund and the men of Baker Company are in grave danger as they sprint toward the heavily defended German fort known as Driant.
German machine-gun bullets whiz past Holmlund’s helmet at twice the speed of sound. Heads and torsos shatter all around him. U.S. artillery thunders in the distance behind them, laying down cover fire. The forest air smells of gunpowder, rain, and the sharp tang of cordite. The ground is nothing but mud and a thick carpet of wet leaves. Here and there a bramble vine reaches out to snag his uniform and trip his feet. Over his broad shoulders, Holmlund wears a block of TNT known as a satchel charge. Grenades dangle from his cartridge belt like grapes on a vine. And in his arms, rather than carrying it by the wooden handle atop the stock, Holmlund cradles his fifteen-pound, four-foot-long Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, as he would an infant. Only, this baby is a killing machine, capable of firing 650 three-inch bullets per minute.
Though he doesn’t show it, Robert W. Holmlund is scared, despite all that firepower, just like every single man in this lethal forest.
But there is no time to indulge his fear right now. No time for homesickness or doubt. Fort Driant looms four hundred yards distant. Everything about the fortress is a mystery, from the location of its big 150 mm howitzers to the maze of tunnels deep underground where its Wehrmacht inhabitants eat, sleep, pray, clean their rifles, plan their battles, and then suddenly poke their heads out of secret openings to kill.
Patton has ordered Baker Company to get inside Driant. The best way to do that is to climb on the roof, which is concealed by mounds of earth. From there, it’s a matter of finding a doorway or some other hidden opening that will allow Baker to descend and wage war in the tunnels.
Baker is part of a two-pronged assault. On the opposite side of the fort, the men of Easy Company are also on the attack. But they do so warily, for Driant has already bloodied them once.
It happened six days ago. Skies were clear. P-47 fighter-bombers screamed in low on the morning of the assault, dropping napalm and thousand-pound bombs. American artillery then pounded Driant, shelling the Germans with deadly accuracy.
Easy Company launched their attack alongside the men of George Company at 1415 hours under a heavy smoke screen. They had no way of knowing that the aerial bombing and ground artillery had no effect on the Wehrmacht fighters, nor that the enemy was snug and secure within Driant’s fifteen-foot-thick walls and in hidden forest pillboxes.
Step by step, thinking themselves unseen, the U.S. soldiers advanced. Fingers were on triggers as the men scanned the forest, waiting for the muzzle flashes that would expose the enemy. But the Germans did not shoot. Not yet. So Easy and George crept closer to Driant. With each passing moment, they became more convinced that the smoke screen had completely concealed them. They marched closer and closer, and still no German gunshots. Soon a thick tangle of barbwire loomed before the Americans, marking the outer perimeter of Driant’s defenses. There was no way through the razor-sharp coils. The advance ground to a halt.
The Germans opened fire.
The autumn afternoon was rent by a terrifying sound the Americans knew all too well. Their slang for the high-speed ripping sound of a German MG-42 machine gun is “Hitler’s Zipper.” To the Wehrmacht, this killing tone is simply the “Bone Saw.” MG-42s opened up from every direction. Bullets tore through the woods at twelve hundred rounds per minute, capable of killing a man from more than a half mile away.
But the machine guns were just the beginning. Soon mortars, rifles, and even heavy artillery pounded the Americans from every direction. And just like that, the American attack was over. Soldiers hugged the ground for four long hours as German gunners pinpointed their positions and took slow, deliberate aim. It was only after darkness fell that the men of Company E and Company G crawled back to the safety of the American lines.
September 27 was a bad day for the men of Easy. By the end of the fight, eighteen soldiers had been either killed or wounded.
Today will be even worse.
Private Holmlund can go no farther. Nor can the rest of Baker Company. The mountain of barbwire surrounding Driant blocks their path. Thirty feet tall and just as thick, the impenetrable tangle waits to trap any man unlucky enough to snag his uniform or his body within its tendrils. Clipping at it with hand cutters will take days—which is why Holmlund’s company commander, Capt. Harry Anderson, has given the order: blow the wire to hell.
Behind him, Holmlund hears the low rumble of a Continental R-975 air-cooled engine. The telltale crunch of steel treads soon follows, announcing the arrival of an M-4 Sherman tank. Even as the German machine gunners continue to fire on Baker, the Sherman weaves through the trees and takes aim. Its 75 mm gun belches smoke as it fires a round of M-48 high explosive into the wire. A direct hit is soon followed by another, and then another. Within moments, the barbwire parts just enough for Baker Company to sprint through.
Captain Anderson splits the soldiers into three groups. Holmlund’s squad continues toward Driant in a straight line, while the other two squads flank to the right. The landscape is pocked with shell craters, like a man-made lunar surface. Trees and shrubs grow randomly, offering just the slightest bit of camouflage from the German defenders.
The private is in the first wave of American attackers. He dives into a shell crater, presses himself flat against the lip, then pokes his head over the top and fires his BAR at the enemy. Holmlund then sprints forward to a row of small elm trees, where he once again takes cover and seeks out a target. The ground is cool and damp, moisture seeping through his uniform. He fires and moves forward, always forward, never taking his focus off the flat roof of Driant. Despite the cool October temperature, Holmlund is now drenched in sweat. His face and hands are flecked with mud. He hurls himself into another shell crater and hugs the earth. This close to the ground, he is eye level with the fungus and bright green mold sprouting up through the fallen leaves. Bullets whiz low over his head. He reloads and listens, waiting for the chance to fire.
The sounds of the battlefield are familiar: the chatter of machine guns, the screams of the mortally wounded, the concussive thud of hand grenades, orders barked in short, terse sentences. Screams for “Medic” fill the air.
Holmlund fires a burst from his rifle and then runs forward. He races past fallen comrades. He knows them all. They did push-ups side by side during basic training in Alabama. They sailed together for Europe in the hold of a troopship. They sat in an English pasture just hours before D-day, listening to General Patton deliver the greatest speech any of them had ever heard. And then, after D-day, Holmlund and Baker fought their way across France, rejoicing as they captured one small village after another, following Patton’s order that they kill Germans in brutal and relentless fashion—lest they themselves be killed first.
Now many of Holmlund’s buddies lie dead or dying. And so ends the sound of their laughter, their rage, their boasts, their tales about that special girl back home, and all that talk about what they’re going to do with their lives once the war ends.
Holmlund doesn’t even give them a second glance.
And he doesn’t stop moving forward. To stop is to become a target. Holmlund’s fighting squad dwindles from twelve men down to six. The squad leader is hit, and Holmlund takes command without thinking twice about it. Slowly, in a form of progress that is measured in feet and inches instead of yards, Baker Company moves closer and closer to the German fortress.
Two hours into the battle, PFC Robert W. Holmlund of Delavan City, Wisconsin, finds himself standing atop Fort Driant.
“The real hero,” Holmlund heard George S. Patton say just four months ago, “is the man who fights even though he’s scared. Some men get over their fright in a minute under fire. For some, it takes days. But a real man will never let his fear of death overwhelm his honor, his sense of duty to his country, and his innate manhood.”
As Holmlund watched, General Patton drew himself up to his full six-foot-two-inch height. His shoulders were broad and his face ruddy, with a strong chin and an aquiline nose. His uniform was a marvel, with four rows of ribbons, four shiny brass buttons, a polished helmet bearing his three general’s stars, tan riding pants, and knee-high cavalry boots. Most vividly, a Colt .45-caliber pistol with an ivory grip was holstered on his hip, sending a strong signal that Patton is no bureaucrat. He’s a warrior, and everybody had better know it.
Patton continued: “Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best, and it removes all that is base. Americans pride themselves on being He Men—and they are He Men. Remember that the enemy is just as frightened as you are, and that they are not supermen.”
George Patton delivered “the Speech” in the British countryside, to the men of his Third Army, on June 5, 1944. Some of the soldiers watching were combat veterans. Most, like Holmlund, were brand new to the war. They found hope in Patton’s words. They found a belief in their own courage. And most of all, each man sitting in that pasture under a glorious blue English sky found strength in the knowledge that he was being commanded by the most audacious, forthright, and brilliant general on either side of the war.
Until that day, Holmlund had never seen Patton in the flesh, and had only heard stories about the legendary general—the man who’d never lost a battle, hero of North Africa and Sicily, but who was temporarily relieved of his command for slapping two privates convalescing in a military hospital whom he considered cowardly.
Neither Holmlund nor any of the thousands of other soldiers seated in this pasture had any idea that their feelings for the general would come to vacillate between love and hate. In fact, Patton’s nickname is “Old Blood and Guts,” with the understanding that the guts of Patton rode on the blood of his soldiers.
“You are not all going to die,” Patton reassured the men whom he would soon lead into combat. His voice was high instead of gruff, which came as a surprise to Holmlund. “Only two percent of you right here today will die in a major battle. Death must not be feared. Death, in time, comes to all men.”
One half mile north of where Private Holmlund and the men of Company B are making their stand atop Fort Driant, death, as predicted, is coming to their fellow soldiers in Easy Company. The hope of Patton’s speech is long forgotten.
Unlike their first attack on Driant six days ago, Company E made it through the barbwire this time. But the Germans turned that into a fatal accomplishment, for once inside Easy was pinned down with precision mortar fire. Going forward has become impossible. Even worse, enemy shells are exploding to their rear, meaning that retreating back through the wire is also out of the question. Easy Company tries to solve the problem by calling in an artillery strike on their position, but this “Danger Close” barrage does nothing to stop the dug-in German gunners. Instead, friendly fire kills one of their own in a most gruesome fashion: the soldier’s head is sliced cleanly from his body by a piece of flying explosive.
Easy Company digs in. They have no choice. Two-foot-long portable shovels scrape troughs in the earth as German machine gunners continue to rake Easy’s position. It is every man for himself.
The terror continues. The Germans of Kampfgruppe Petersen take aim with 8 cm Granatwerfer 34 mortar fire and MG-42 machine guns. The Americans are defenseless. Killing them is as easy as finding the target and patiently squeezing the trigger. The Germans are in no hurry. The Americans are going nowhere. One after another, the young men who comprise Easy Company are cut down in the prime of their life. The company medics race from foxhole to foxhole to tend the wounded. But soon, one after another, they die, too.
Hours pass. Rain drizzles down. The nightmare chatter of the Maschinengewehr accompanies the sounds of Company E digging their trenches deeper and deeper. Each man squats as low as possible, careful not to lift his head above ground level. Doing so would be an act of suicide. Easy’s foxholes become filled with water, mud, blood, and each man’s personal filth. Trench foot, from prolonged exposure to cold and wet, has become so common since the autumn rains arrived that it makes standing in yet another puddle a time of agony. But the men are beyond caring about the stench and squalor of their fighting holes.
All they want to do is stay alive.
“Americans despise cowards,” Patton continued all those months ago, putting his own spin on U.S. history. “Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.
“All through your Army careers, you men have bitched about what you call ‘chickenshit drilling.’ That, like everything else in this Army, has a definite purpose. That purpose is alertness. Alertness must be bred into every soldier. I don’t give a f-ck for a man who’s not always on his toes. You men are veterans or you wouldn’t be here. You are ready for what’s to come. A man must be alert at all times if he expects to stay alive. If you’re not alert, sometime, a German son-of-an-asshole-bitch is going to sneak up behind you and beat you to death with a sock full of shit!”
A handful of the senior officers listening to the speech disapproved of Patton’s coarse language. Patton could not care less. He believes that profanity is the language of the soldier, and that to speak to soldiers one must use words that will have the most impact.
Few can deny that George Patton is entitled to this belief, nor that he is the consummate soldier. He is descended from a Civil War Confederate colonel, and has himself been in the military since graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1909. Soon after, he fought in Mexico against Pancho Villa. He then fought in the First World War at Saint-Mihiel, the legendary battlefield west of Metz where he walks now. Patton was the very first officer ever assigned to the U.S. Army tank corps, and is renowned for his tactical brilliance on the battlefield. He lives by the words of the great French general Napoléon, “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace”—“Audacity, audacity, always audacity”—a motto that works well on the field of battle, but not so well in diplomatic situations. Patton has damaged his career again and again by saying and doing the sort of impulsive things that would see a lesser man relieved of his command for good.
“An Army is a team,” he continues; “it lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real fighting under fire than they know about f-cking!”
Patton was forced to pause, as he knew he would be. The waves of laughter rolling toward the stage were deafening.
Four months later, Patton knows the battle for Metz is failing, and that Easy Company is being decimated. Even more galling, his intelligence briefing about the defenders of Fort Driant was wrong. These are not the cooks, clerks, and new recruits he was led to expect. These are hardened German veterans, willing to die for their Nazi führer, Adolf Hitler. They are not about to surrender. Word is arriving from the battlefield that the attack has stalled. For the second time in six days, an assault on Driant teeters on the brink of failure.
Normally in such a situation, Patton might jump in his staff car and race to the battlefield to direct the action. More than one soldier has been shocked to see the general himself barking orders at the front lines. But that is clearly impossible now. The risk would be too great. So Patton can only pace in his headquarters and fret, swear loudly, and quietly seethe about the lack of gasoline and bullets that are limiting his ability to assault Driant with a massive, full-blown attack. Due to a shortage of supplies, Patton has been capable of sending only two companies, numbering a total of just three hundred men, to capture this citadel. It is madness. He should have far more firepower at his disposal.
George S. Patton wants to defeat the Germans at Driant for any number of reasons, but the deep desire to wage war is at the top of the list. Decisions above his pay grade and logistical difficulties have forced the Third Army to a screeching halt after six weeks of nonstop running battle. He hoped that his rush from one side of France to the other would continue all the way across Germany to Berlin, where he planned on winning the war single-handedly. “We shall attack and attack until we are exhausted, and then we shall attack again,” he boldly ordered his troops. And they did. Patton’s aggressive tactics have placed the Third Army far in advance of the British forces, who are approaching Germany to the north. But now the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, has ordered Patton to go on the defensive, while allocating precious supplies of gasoline and bullets to the armies of British field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. It is Monty, a finicky and self-important Englishman who considers himself a far superior general to Patton, who has been given the go-ahead to launch a decisive offensive toward Germany’s Rhine River. For the time being, there will be no more forward movement by the Third Army.
Patton feels that the decision was Ike’s call, based on his incorrect assessment of the battlefield. Allied politics also played a role. The British have suffered grievously for five years, with London being devastated by German bombing. Tens of thousands of British subjects have died in the streets. Winston Churchill and his government want to deliver their vengeance.
The Nazi dictator Hitler was on the verge of victory, and might even have forced Great Britain to its knees, had it not invaded Russia. By opening a two-front war, Hitler put too much pressure on his ferocious military machine. The ten-million-man Wehrmacht could not possibly control all the hundreds of thousands of square miles it conquered. And so began the inevitable Nazi retreat, which is now in its final stages.
But the Germans are fiercely defending their homeland as Allied forces push toward the Rhine River border. The fighting is hard and personal, and Patton wants a piece of it. Nevertheless, Eisenhower has reduced Patton’s fuel and supply line to a trickle.
But rather than simply sit still, per Eisenhower’s directive, Patton has chosen to “adjust his lines” by crossing the Moselle River and conquering the ancient city of Metz. One problem: in order to take the city, he must first conquer Fort Driant, with its big guns capable of lobbing artillery shells into the town square. Only then will Patton accept Eisenhower’s order that the Third Army stand down.
Right now, that moment seems far away.
In fact, what Patton desperately needs is one of his soldiers to do something audacious that will turn the tide in this desperate battle.
That man, unbeknownst to anyone, is PFC Robert W. Holmlund.
The Germans are doing the unthinkable: they are calling in friendly fire on their own positions.
Private Holmlund presses his body flat against the ground as shell after artillery shell explodes on the roof of Fort Driant. The concussion of each blast feels like a sharp kick in the stomach. A wave of nausea washes over him, and his eardrums feel as if they are about to burst.
No longer are the Germans content to wage a defensive gun battle with Company B. Instead, they have radioed to nearby German gun batteries and requested that they fire artillery onto the top of the fort to dislodge the Americans. Exposed and vulnerable, the men of Baker can do nothing to fight back.
From his vantage point on the roof, Private Holmlund sees an odd sight among the tangle of shrubs and dead grass atop the fort. It appears to be some sort of conical grate. Holmlund kicks at it. The grate flies to one side, revealing a narrow pipe leading straight down into the fort. It has never occurred to Holmlund, or any of the other men from Baker Company, that such a pipe would exist. But it is logical, because the Germans hunkered down inside Fort Driant need some form of ventilation. The conical shape lets in air but keeps out rain.
Holmlund considers dropping his satchel charge down into the pipe. But it would never fit. The canvas cover holding the charge is too bulky, and likely to get stuck before falling more than a few inches in. Instead, he calls out for a Bangalore torpedo. Five feet long, two inches wide, and packed with nine pounds of dynamite, the slender tube of explosive is the perfect solution.
A soldier in Holmlund’s squad hands one over.
Holmlund sets his BAR on the rooftop, then pulls a blasting cap out of one cartridge pocket. He inserts the primary explosive device into the recessed tail end of the Bangalore. When the blasting cap explodes, it will force a much larger, secondary explosion from the TNT within the torpedo.
Holmlund lights the time-delayed fuse, measured to ensure that the Bangalore will fall the length of the ventilation shaft before exploding. Then he drops the torpedo down and rolls away from the shaft.
The Bangalore clatters against the side of the metal pipe as it falls. There is a quiet moment just before it hits the bottom. Then comes the explosion. The thunder is enormous, rocketing back up the ventilation shaft. Holmlund soon hears confused Germans screaming at one another. He preps another Bangalore and drops it inside. The second explosion elicits even more chaos among the Germans. “They’re trampling over one another, trying to get out,” Holmlund exclaims to a member of his fighting squad.
The building turns out to be a barracks. Holmlund calmly leads the rest of the men off the roof and down to a locked fort entrance.
It takes time, several rounds of well-placed explosives, and a direct shot from a nearby self-propelled howitzer, but the massive steel door gives way.
Thanks to the quick thinking of PFC Robert W. Holmlund, Company B soon enters Fort Driant. The tide of the battle has shifted. Capt. Harry Anderson leads the charge into the subterranean world. Now winning the battle is a bloody but simple matter of going from tunnel to tunnel to flush out the defenders—or so Anderson believes.
Baker is joined in the tunnels by Company G, a group of reinforcements led by Capt. Jack Gerrie, a man whose bravery under fire is well known within the Eleventh Infantry Regiment.
The Germans and Americans soon fight in close quarters, the deafening clamor of explosives and gunshots thundering down the narrow corridors. Death comes from all angles as bullets ricochet off the thick concrete walls. Companies B and G make their way deeper and deeper into the fort, but the Wehrmacht soldiers thwart their advance by filling the tunnels from floor to ceiling with debris as they retreat. Clearing a path is both time-consuming and dangerous for the Americans, for they take fire the minute they blast a hole in the blockades.
With night about to fall, an exhausted PFC Robert W. Holmlund and his squad leave the tunnels. They are needed on the roof, where they will set up a defensive position to guard against a German counterattack. The plan is for Holmlund and his men to return to the tunnels tomorrow, to continue the slow and deliberate underground battle.
Once on the roof, Holmlund hears the telltale radial-engine drone of American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber aircraft. After a full day without airpower, the skies have cleared up enough to get the planes airborne. But the timing is odd. With American forces out in the open, it is not the right time to drop bombs.
That’s when Holmlund notices that the planes aren’t flying toward Baker’s position. They’re headed for the opposite side of the fort—and a very exposed Easy Company.
Kampfgruppe Petersen—the German fighting force that has toyed with Easy Company all afternoon—is counterattacking, leaving their dug-in positions to confront the Americans directly. The aim of the Wehrmacht is to kill the Americans in their fighting holes.
The Americans are exhausted. The corpses of their dead reek of decomposition, and infection is setting in among the wounded. But the P-47 pilots save the day, strafing the Wehrmacht positions with their eight wing-mounted .50-caliber machine guns and dropping five-hundred-pound bombs down on top of the advancing Germans.
Within moments, Kampfgruppe Petersen falls back to the underground tunnels.
But the Germans don’t go away. Soon enough they return to harassing Easy Company from the distant safety of bunkers and the fort, firing on them with mortars and machine guns.
Night falls, and when the Thunderbolt pilots can no longer see their targets, they fly the one hundred miles back to the safety of their base in Saint-Dizier, and the warmth of a hot shower and a clean bed before taking to the skies in the morning, leaving the men of Easy Company to do their best to survive in their foxholes overnight. Thanks to the possibility of yet another German counterattack, sleep is not an option.
Private Holmlund is exhausted. The German counterattack came, just as expected. Holmlund once again displayed the sort of selfless courage that George Patton spoke about in England.
As the German forces swept across the roof of Driant, trying to push back Company B and Company G, Holmlund ignored the hail of bullets. Knowing that his Browning Automatic Rifle had the sort of rapid-shot firepower that could effectively halt the German attack, he raced from a safe defensive position to a new fighting spot, one that was completely exposed to enemy fire. After only a short time in the army, Holmlund had developed a strategic intuition similar to that of the great Patton himself. In an act of courage that Patton will one day personally reward with the Distinguished Service Cross, Holmlund poured fire directly at the Germans. All by himself, Private Holmlund scattered an entire German unit and ended their counterattack.
The retreat accomplished, Holmlund finds a quiet corner on the roof. But before he can rest, he double-checks that each man in his squad has chosen a solid defensive position. A second counterattack is likely, and he wants Baker to be ready.
There are just four men left in the squad. Eight have been killed or wounded. Holmlund crouches low as he studies his men’s locations and inquires about ammo and water to last the night. It’s not a selfless act. Great leaders take care of their men first, and then worry about their own needs.
Suddenly a shot rings out. A German sniper’s rifle has spoken.
PFC Robert W. Holmlund from Wisconsin drops to the ground.
“Things going very badly at Fort Driant,” George Patton writes in his journal. It is nighttime in his headquarters. The Third Army lost 110 men in the first day of fighting, and the toll continues to rise. He has spent the evening pacing, fretting, and resisting the urge to smoke a cigar, a habit he is forever trying to quit. “We may have to abandon the attack, because it is not worth the cost. I was over optimistic.”
Days have passed since PFC Robert Holmlund dropped that Bangalore down into the German barracks. The battle for Driant has become a bloody stalemate. It is quiet far behind the lines at Patton’s château in the small town of Étain, but he can envision the chaos at Driant. Reports from the battlefield have been grim, with casualties mounting and no forward progress being made.
Easy can go nowhere. The men are dazed and drained by more than three days without sleep, food, or water. The Germans are so well hidden, and have zeroed in on the American positions so accurately, that any attempt to reinforce or rescue Easy is tantamount to a suicide mission. The number of dead in the unit is more than thirty—and rising by the hour. But enemy fire is so intense that no bodies can be removed.
In the words of one fellow general, Patton paces like a “caged tiger.” He is in no mood to lose a battle, particularly when Montgomery and the British have been given the green light (and the gasoline) to attack deep into Germany.
Patton knows his reputation could be damaged by any defeat. He is also aware that the nature of warfare is that many men will lose their lives for the sake of a common objective. Capturing Fort Driant, the lone obstacle standing between Patton’s army and the invasion of the German homeland, is such an objective. So it is that Patton orders his old friend Gen. Walton Walker, who serves as commander of the Third Army’s Twentieth Corps, to press the attack on Driant. Patton tells the burly Texan that the battle must be won “even if it takes every man.”
Capt. Jack Gerrie hasn’t slept in two days. He has just spent another endless night atop Fort Driant, and now presses his body flat against the curve of a shell crater as the constant rip of the German Bone Saw cuts through the morning air.
It seems impossible to escape that lightning-fast death spray. And Captain Gerrie has had enough of it. With many of his men dead, Gerrie finds a piece of paper and prepares to scratch out a letter to none other than Gen. George S. Patton.
There isn’t a man on the battlefield who would consider Gerrie a coward. Just last month, he single-handedly changed the course of a battle by paddling a canoe across the Seine River under heavy fire to better observe enemy positions. Once ashore, he shot the first German he encountered, did his reconnaissance while under further enemy fire, and then, staying underwater as much as possible, swam the two hundred yards back across the river to direct the U.S. attack.
And one week ago, Gerrie and his men of Company G were with Easy Company on that first ill-fated probe into Driant. He was pinned down for four hours with MG-42 bullets whizzing over his head, waiting for night to fall before he and his men could retreat.
So Capt. Jack Gerrie knows something about hopelessness. But this is different. He and his men are now completely stuck. His faith in Patton’s attack has vanished. Meanwhile, the majority of the German soldiers concealed within Fort Driant are completely safe. They have taken almost no casualties. As a company commander, Gerrie feels it is his duty to get the word about this dire situation back to General Patton.
He thinks carefully about what he is about to write. There is so much to tell. Only those with him on the battlefield can truly appreciate the futility of the U.S. position.
Gerrie has fought in the tunnels and on the roof over the past two days. He knows firsthand that the passages below Driant are a warren of steel doors, rubble, and other obstacles that will take weeks to get through. The tunnels are three feet wide and seven feet tall, and the Germans can block the American advance simply by throwing up new barriers of debris along their lengths. The fighting is accomplished through machine-gun fire and lobbed grenades. The acoustics amplify even the slightest explosion, rendering each man deaf for the length of any firefight. And of course there’s the odor. Soldiers fighting inside the fort on both sides have no choice but to relieve themselves in the tunnels. The foul aroma mixes with the smell of gunpowder, the thick haze of TNT, and the many pools of blood to form a horrific bouquet that Captain Gerrie will never forget.
The rooftop is equally terrifying. The German snipers are selective, focusing their bullets on Americans carrying flamethrowers or Bangalore torpedoes. When Gerrie and Company G moved in to reinforce Baker Company two days ago, a column of tanks followed them. Those Shermans are now just rusting hulks. The Germans knocked them out, one after the other, with precision firing from a Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyer.
Now the American forces atop Fort Driant are in a state of chaos. The soldiers hide from snipers anywhere they can—in abandoned pillboxes, shell craters, empty bunkers. Any movement outside these shelters during daylight is pure folly. Many of these men are brand-new soldiers, rushed from a replacement depot and into the front lines. Most are no more than boys, eighteen to twenty years old, with no combat experience. They don’t understand military tactics, and until now they have never heard a shot fired in battle. These bewildered young men do the only things they can to stay alive: take cover, hug the earth, and pray.
But that only gets them through the day. The nights atop Fort Driant are far deadlier. The Germans sneak out of their holes in the ground and silently prowl the battlefield. The Wehrmacht soldiers have the advantage of surprise and know this terrain far better than their enemies do. They slaughter the men of the Third Army where they lie hiding, killing them one by one. The last words many of the Americans will ever hear are spoken in German, in the quiet whisper of an assassin.
Last night, Gerrie tried to turn the tables by venturing into the killing zone to locate the men of Company G and organize them into a cohesive fighting unit. But he could find only half his soldiers. The rest are either missing or dead; the rooftop is not a place for taking prisoners. The time has come for Jack Gerrie to dispel once and for all any delusions that this battle is winnable.
“The situation is critical,” Gerrie tells Patton in writing. He uses a pencil, trying to be legible even as the fatigue and the need to remain battle-ready muddy his thoughts. This letter will become, quite possibly, one of the most brutally honest communiqués ever posted from the field of battle. “A couple more barrages and a counterattack and we are sunk. We have no men, our equipment is shot, and we just can’t go on. The troops in Company G are done. They are just there, what’s left of them. Enemy has infiltrated and pinned what is here down. We cannot advance . . . We cannot delay any longer in replacement. We may be able to hold till dark but if anything happens this afternoon I can make no predictions.”
All around Gerrie’s shell hole, American corpses sprawl where they died, the bodies already fleeced for additional ammunition and explosives by the surviving GIs.
Gerrie continues his letter: “There is only one answer, the way things stand. First, either to withdraw and saturate [the fort] with heavy bombers or reinforce with a hell of a strong force. This strong force might hold here, but eventually they’ll get it by artillery fire. They have all these places zeroed in by artillery. The forts have 5–6 feet walls inside and 15-foot roofs of reinforced concrete. All our charges have been useless against this stuff. The few leaders are trying to keep left what is intact and that’s all they can do. The troops are just not sufficiently trained and what is more they have no training in even basic infantry. Everything is committed and we cannot follow attack plan. This is just a suggestion, but if we want this damned fort let’s get the stuff required to take it and then go.”
“Right now,” Gerrie concludes, aiming his words directly at Third Army commander George S. Patton, “you haven’t got it.”
Patton ignores Captain Gerrie’s letter—but only for a time. A week after the attack began, Patton admits that this battle cannot be won. He makes the decision to call off the assault on Fort Driant. On the night of October 12, American combat engineers booby-trap an escape route that will successfully take American troops back out of Fort Driant. They lay three tons of explosives, with fuses timed to go off at irregular intervals, in order to discourage the Germans from following for up to six hours.
Capt. Jack Gerrie survives the battle, and receives the Distinguished Service Cross a week later for his exploits crossing the Seine in August.
Thanks to his quick action with the Bangalore torpedo, PFC Robert W. Holmlund is also awarded the army’s second-highest award for valor—albeit posthumously.
After four days under fire, the men of Easy Company crawl out of their foxholes and make it back to the safety of the American lines. Of the 140 men who began the offensive, just 85 are physically unscathed.
The emotional toll of Easy’s harrowing time under fire, however, will not be counted for many years to come.
George S. Patton walks the battlefields of his youth, even as the time has come to admit defeat at Fort Driant. Just hours before the retreat is to begin, he visits the World War I battlefields at Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, where he fought as a young tank commander. Now these rolling fields are peaceful and still. Death seems so far away. But it was here, on the muddy pastures of eastern France, that the final Allied offensive began in the summer of 1918. Almost thirty thousand Americans died in a hail of German machine-gun bullets and deadly mustard gas, but the battle (and the war) was ultimately won.
That the Battle of Meuse-Argonne was launched on September 26, almost twenty-six years to the day that Patton ordered elements of the Third Army to take Fort Driant, is an irony not lost on a man who is deeply steeped in history, and the history of war in particular. Now, instead of launching the final drive into Germany that would end the Second World War, he commands an army that is going nowhere.
That irony is not lost on Patton, either.
In all, he has just suffered nearly 800 casualties. Almost half the men who took part in the Battle of Fort Driant are dead or wounded. Some 187 men are classified as “missing,” a vague euphemism that defines a prisoner of war, a deserter, or a man whose body has been completely obliterated by an artillery shell.
Patton studies the topography of Meuse-Argonne alongside a visiting political dignitary, J. F. Byrnes of South Carolina. Byrnes is a close confidant of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, so Patton must rein in his tongue at a time when he would most like to lash out. The two men, however, have become quick friends, and walking the battlefield with him is a form of solace for Patton.
But beneath his external calm, Patton is furious. He seethes about the politics that saw his army halted in its tracks, and that then deprived him of the manpower and firepower he needed to win at Driant. Field Marshal Montgomery, his British rival who was the recipient of the scarce fuel and ammunition, chose to call off his assault on Germany at the height of the Driant assault. If Patton and his men had the supplies Montgomery is now hoarding, there would have been no defeat. By the end of the Driant attack, Patton’s big guns possess so little ammunition that they can fire only seven rounds per day. Patton believes his army is unbeatable if given enough gas, guns, and ammo.
Since arriving in France in early August, his army has killed more enemy, gained more ground, and lost fewer men than any command in Europe. The Third Army has been unstoppable, pressing the attack from one side of France to the other without losing a battle. But Patton has now failed miserably. The U.S. newsreel cameras that filmed Patton meeting with Eisenhower on the eve of the Metz offensive, sensing yet another great victory for America’s best general, must now report back to the American public that the great George Patton is not invincible after all.
On October 13, Patton moves his headquarters south to the French city of Nancy, where he finally follows Eisenhower’s order to stop his army and regroup. And so begins the “October Pause.” The lull in the action is a foolish move on the part of Eisenhower. The American army might be using the lull to reinforce, but so are the Germans. Unbeknownst to the Americans, Adolf Hitler is planning a major attack of his own.
And while the Führer has a deep hatred for the Americans, he also fears and respects George S. Patton, who has laid waste to so many German soldiers. These plans are designed to make sure that Old Blood and Guts is kept off the battlefield at all costs.
Copyright © 2014 by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard