The Germany that 20-year-old Sgt. James Sorg saw across the Rhine hadn’t known a foreign invader since Napoleon. The Allied armies fighting in northern Europe had many rivers to cross, but none more significant than the one before them: the Rhine served as a defensive trench between the advancing Allies and Germany’s industrial powerhouse, the Ruhr Valley. Concealed by a thick smoke screen, 2nd Battalion hustled across the rickety pontoon bridge built to replace the ancient one demolished in Hitler’s scorched earth order. The aptly named “Nero Decree,” ordered the destruction of all infrastructure and industry within the Reich to deny the invaders anything that could be of use. As Germany’s framework imploded, so too did its military. Six years of war on two fronts had depleted their population of fighting men, and by this stage of the war, the resistance came from insurgent Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) and Volksturm militia instead of the formidable Wehrmacht or Waffen SS units.
But it wasn’t always like that- the enemy Grandpa knew fought fiercely for every inch the Americans took from them. The battalion commander-turned-Harvard-academic Col. Trevor Dupuy stated after the war that “on a man for man basis, German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50-percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had a local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.” Col. Dupuy’s claim remained true until the end of January of 1945, when the German loss at the Bulge depleted their last reserves and incapacitated the Luftwaffe as an effective fighting force.
Grandpa was 1st scout, meaning he would operate forward of his battalion as a point man while marching, often detaching with another scout to conduct reconnaissance alone. He would immediately correct somebody by adding “1st” if somebody just called him a “scout”; it was obviously a point of pride for him. There were 2nd and 3rd scouts as well, however they were behind him and had the luxury of walking in his footsteps in dangerous territory. And being first actually saved his life more than once: ambushing Germans would let him pass through unharmed before to let the bulk of the unit into the kill zone before firing. After the shooting stopped, he’d be alone, cut off from his platoon, and hoping there were friendly forces to return to. After one such ambush only the drainage ditch he’d sought cover in separated him from a formation of German infantry, marching in step and singing, very much unbroken and ready to fight. “I could’ve reached out and touched them,” he told me. And the German’s weren’t the only thing he had to worry about returning to friendly lines- a jumpy American private on sentry duty was just as likely to shoot him just for coming from the wrong direction.
As advancing had its unique dangers, so too did defending. To repel attacking enemy forces what’s needed is not forward scouting troops like grandpa, however. What’s needed is riflemen acting in their most basic capacity, ideally in well-placed and well-dug entrenchments with intersecting fields of fire and support from armor and artillery. But any infantryman can tell you that the situation is never ideal: once the German Panzer Lehr Division launched their counterattack west of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, their defensive positions were hastily dug holes barely deep enough to cover their heads and shoulders.
In late November of 1944, 2nd Battalion marched all night to the town of Schalbach to fill a hole in the line created by the defenders overwhelmed by the ferocity of the German advance. When I was young, I always found Grandpa’s characterizations of the battle amusing: he’d make comments like “it’s amazing how much of your body you can fit into your helmet” and “we must’ve made a whole lot of noise” that I assumed were intended to be comical. But when I got older I found 2nd Battalion’s Presidential Unit Citation for the fight, and, for the first time, understood how serious he really was:
“The enemy launched its onslaught against the hastily prepared defensive positions with a numerically superior force of infantry and approximately 22 Mark IV and Mark V Tanks. In the fierce fighting that followed, enemy tanks overran the battalion’s positions and fired machine guns and 88-millimeter guns into foxholes at point-blank range. Allowing tanks to pass over their foxholes, the men of 2ndBattalion immediately arose and continued to annihilate any Germans who had tried to accompany the armor. Even when bazooka fire bounced off the heavy enemy armor and the battalion’s machine guns had been knocked out of action or had run out of ammunition, the infantrymen clung to their positions and, with rifle fire, forced the enemy to withdraw.”
At the end of the war, General Alexander Patch, commander of the 7th U.S. Army, stated publicly that American forces “wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for the heroism of the fighting men of the 2nd Battalion at Schalbach.” Grandpa’s statements were much less congratulatory, however: “that entire fight, I didn’t know if I still had feet” he would say, another joke I presumed. But this statement too had a sobering reality: his feet weren’t just cold. After the battle, he was hospitalized with trench foot so severe that they were nearly amputated.
The dwindling number of these veterans makes memories like Grandpa’s increasingly rare. It is our duty to remember as much as we can of their story, and to create new legacies for future generations by maintaining their dedication and sacrifice. During my service, I took comfort in thinking he’d be able to relate to the timeless factors of infantry life: boots that are never quite dry; weapons that are never quite clean; and fighting holes that are never quite deep enough. Though I never did anything close to the level of duking it out with Panzers or fighting the way back to friendly lines, his memories gave me a purpose that I was fortunate to be able to turn to, and I hope I can provide this gift to future generations.
*In 2003, James Sorg was interviewed by the Congressional Library about his experience.