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. Alone and cut off from his unit he’d have to find his way back after the shooting stopped.
On the defensive though, what’s needed is not forward scouting troops like grandpa; what’s needed is riflemen holding well-placed and well-dug fighting holes. And once the German Panzer Lehr Division launched their counterattack, the American sweep of Alsace-Lorraine would quickly turn into a defensive stand in hastily dug holes barely deep enough to cover their shoulders
When 2nd Battalion of the 114th got to Schalbach on November 24, 1944, they had no reconnaissance. All they knew was that the 106th Calvary had been pushed back and they’d marched all night to fill the hole in the line. Grandpa used to make seemingly light-hearted claims about trying to fit his entire body into his helmet that I found amusing when I was young. But after reading 2nd Battalion’s Presidential Unit Citation for the fight, I 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 that they “wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for the heroism of the fighting men of the 2nd Battalion” of the 114th Regiment at Schalbach, France. “That entire fight, I didn’t know if I still had feet” Grandpa 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, though in no way comparable to his, 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. His memories gave me a purpose I’m fortunate I could turn to, and that I’m hopeful I can pass on to future generations as well.
*In 2003, James Sorg was interviewed by the Congressional Library about his experience.