The Heroic Stand of an Intelligence Platoon:


A Symbol of the Combat Ability of MI Soldiers

by Captain John Della-Giustina
On 16 December 1944, Nazi Germany commenced its last great offensive of World War II against the thin line of U.S. Army defenders in the Ardennes forest. The crucial Battle of the Bulge lasted until 28 January 1945, but the majority of the heavy fighting occurred during December and was among the most ferocious of the entire war. This campaign produced many acts of bravery and demonstrated the courageous character of the American fighting spirit.
One of the most gallant combat actions was that of an intelligence and reconnaissance (I&R) platoon's defense near Lanzerath, Belgium, on the first day of the battle. For their exploits, the I&R Platoon, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, would later become "the most heavily decorated platoon for a single action in World War II."1 Their incredible story is a prime example of how tactical intelligence leaders and soldiers should be able to accomplish any mission required in combat.

Organization

An intelligence and reconnaissance platoon was organic to each infantry regiment during the war. The 25 soldiers in the platoon consisted of 2 9-man reconnaissance squads and a 7-man headquarters section who worked in the regimental S2 section.2 The platoon's primary mission:
To serve as the special intelligence agency of the regimental commander for the collection of information under the supervision of the regimental intelligence officer (S2)....To accomplish this mission and to provide the regimental commander with vital information of the enemy, the platoon must operate patrols, man observation posts, and coordinate the intelligence activities of the regiment.3
In simpler terms they were the "eyes and ears" of the regiment. But on the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, the 394th Infantry Regiment's I&R platoon faced the entirely different mission of direct combat.

Disposition

The untested 99th Infantry Division and its three subordinate regiments entered the front line in the quiet Ardennes sector in mid- November 1944. The 394th's I&R platoon leader, 20-year old First Lieutenant Lyle J. Bouck, Jr., and several of his men were among the first group in the regiment to receive the Combat Infantryman's Badge for actions during one of their initial patrols.4 Until early December, they conducted numerous reconnaissance patrols and manned various observation posts. On 10 December, the regimental commander, Colonel Don Riley, sent the entire 18-man platoon to the vicinity of Lanzerath to observe the area and provide warning of enemy movement on the regiment's right flank.
The assigned position also coincided with the 99th Division's and V Corps' right boundary. To the south was the 14th Cavalry Group of VIII Corps. The location the I&R platoon chose was in the woodline northwest of the small village of Lanzerath. This was actually across the corps boundary, but Lieutenant Bouck was not aware of this. The position offered good observation to the highway, which ran north through Lanzerath to the main defensive positions of the regiment, and to the east towards the town of Losheim just inside the German border.
In the tree line, Bouck's soldiers found well-dug foxholes left by another American unit. Over the next five days the platoon improved its position, developed a strong defensive plan, sent out patrols, and ran a communication line to the regimental command post. However, it conducted little coordination with a tank destroyer section from the 14th Cavalry Group which had set up in Lanzerath about 200 yards to the southeast.
The I&R platoon also gathered many weapons to supplement its authorized M1 rifles. These weapons included Browning automatic rifles, a .30-caliber light machine gun, and a great amount of ammunition and hand grenades. In addition, the platoon brought its one organic heavy weapon, a .50-caliber Browning machine gun, mounted on one of its seven jeeps. On 16 December, the platoon thus had "a sustained firepower capability" which was essential to its defense.5

Contact

In the early morning of 16 December, the German army commenced its attack with a huge rolling artillery barrage which lasted about two hours. The I&R platoon suffered minimal damage in its heavily protected foxholes, but the shelling cut their landline communications to regiment. Several minutes after the artillery stopped, the two exposed American tank destroyers in Lanzerath withdrew to the rear. Thus, the I&R platoon was the sole front-line unit along the corps boundary guarding an important avenue of approach into the sector. By SCR-300 radio, the regiment ordered them to maintain their position and to send a patrol down to Lanzerath.
The patrol observed the German- held town of Losheim, to the east, from the upstairs of one of the houses in Lanzerath. Soon they saw a large German formation emerge out of the fog marching to the southwest. If this German unit turned north at the first major intersection, they would march through Lanzerath on the road directly in front of the I&R platoon's position and into the unprotected flank of the regiment.
After observing the size of the German force, those returning from the patrol wanted to withdraw to the rear but Lieutenant Bouck ordered the soldiers to their foxholes. He believed their strong defensive arrangement might be able to delay the Germans. He also called for artillery fire on the marching column as it turned north, but there was no support available due to German attacks throughout the division sector.
As the column marched through the tiny town of Lanzerath, Bouck allowed a small group of soldiers to pass and march to the north. He recognized the Germans' uniforms as belonging to a paratrooper unit. As the main body arrived and halted, Bouck noticed three men, one of whom appeared to be the commander. But before the I&R platoon was able to commence firing on the German force, a teenage girl ran out of a house to the command group and stated something to them while pointing in the general direction of the I&R position. The second attack again decimated the German unit.
A German then quickly barked an order to the column, and they dove into roadside ditches. The Americans had held their fire because of the presence of the girl, and thus lost an excellent opportunity to ambush the column. Fire erupted almost immediately from both positions.6 The battle of Lanzerath had begun.

Battle

The German force initially attempted to frontally assault the I&R platoon's defensive position. They attacked across a snow-covered, gently rising field that was over a hundred yards long and bisected by a fence. The snow superbly camouflaged Lieutenant Bouck's foxholes along the woodline. Each fighting position provided interlocking fields of fire with the others. The I&R soldiers had zeroed their automatic weapons on the fence line which ran parallel to their location. Furthermore, the .50-caliber machine gun was in a defilade position and could easily interdict reinforcements coming from the south. Despite the advantages of this defensive position, the Germans continued to attack across the open field with devastating results for the paratroopers.
The fighting between the 18 men of the I&R platoon and a German battalion from the 9th Regiment, 3d Parachute Division, raged all day. The Germans attempted three separate concerted assaults at Lieutenant Bouck's positions and the Americans repulsed them each time.
After a pause to recover their wounded, the German paratroopers started another attack. Lieutenant Bouck again radioed for artillery support, but was not given any because of other priorities. When Bouck asked what he should do without artillery, he was told to "hold at all costs." A few minutes later enemy fire ripped through the I&R platoon radio making it inoperable.7
Despite heavy fighting, the I&R platoon's status was good. Only one soldier had been wounded. He was hit in the face by a rifle grenade, which miraculously failed to explode. The second attack again decimated the German unit. The paratroopers managed to bring in some mortar support, but the I&R platoon was safe in their covered foxholes. The third attack by the Germans in the afternoon yielded the same outcome. Hundreds of German soldiers lay dead in the snow. The Germans had been unable to approach the I&R position. Several U.S. soldiers had exhibited extreme boldness to prevent penetrations of their perimeter.
As the afternoon continued the I&R platoon's efforts started to wane. Many soldiers had been up most of the night, and the day's fighting had exhausted them. Some were also running low on ammunition. A U.S. field artillery forward observer had shown up but helped the situation little due to the confusion caused by the German attack throughout the Ardennes sector. Lieutenant Bouck sent two soldiers to regimental headquarters for reinforcements or orders to withdraw. They were both captured before reaching the headquarters.
Lieutenant Bouck planned to withdraw his platoon when they had expended all ammunition. However, as dusk arrived on 16 December, about 50 paratroopers flanked the platoon's position and were quickly inside the perimeter. The Germans moved to each foxhole clearing them out as they went. A German soldier fired into Bouck's position hitting the lieutenant in the leg and seriously wounding his foxhole mate in the face. Every platoon member became a prisoner, except one who was killed in action.

Consequence

The engagement at Lanzerath was over but its effect was astounding. The 18 men of the I&R platoon had inflicted between 400 and 500 casualties, decimating an entire battalion of the German 3d Parachute Division. The platoon had halted the mission of the paratroopers to rapidly break through the American front and allow armored units of the German main effort the Sixth Panzer Army immediate access to open roads toward the Meuse River On the night of 16 December, the 9th Parachute Regiment in Lanzerath failed to continue to the west. They feared heavy resistance from American defenses such as they had encountered from the I&R platoon.
Just after midnight, German Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper, commander of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment, 1st SS Panzer Division the spearhead of the Sixth Panzer Army's drive for Antwerp arrived in Lanzerath. He had been delayed by horrendous road traffic, blown bridges, and the tenacious defensive operations by the units of the 394th Infantry Regiment, including the I&R platoon. Irate at the lack of progress, Peiper ordered his force forward at about 0400, some 18 hours behind schedule. The delay altered the crucial timetable for Peiper and other Panzer units. This situation allowed the U.S. Army valuable time to counter the German main thrust in the north. Although Peiper's unit progressed the furthest of any Sixth Panzer element, the Americans defeated the remainder of the German divisions in what became the critical northern shoulder of the bulge. The Germans shifted their main effort to their Fifth Army to the south for the remainder of the campaign.8
The tiny I&R platoon had been the anchor of the 394th Regiment's and 99th Division's front-line defense on 16 December. Without their heroic stand, the battalion of German paratroopers they defeated would have attacked into the flank of the 1st Battalion, 394th Infantry Regiment, which was defending the vital road junction at Losheimergraben. Perhaps they would have turned northwest against the regiment's understrength 3d Battalion instead (see the map on page 29). This would have reinforced the 12th Volksgrenadier Division's offensive against these positions and probably overwhelmed the southern flank of the 99th Division on the first day. Panzer exploitations of this opening in a quick drive to the Meuse River thus would have been possible.

Recognition

Due to the capture of the I&R platoon soldiers and the blur of events during the first week of this massive campaign, the U.S. Army did not recognize the platoon for its courageous deeds for thirty-seven years. In 1969, John S. D. Eisenhower, a participant in the campaign and son of the Supreme Allied Commander, published The Bitter Woods which detailed the platoon's bravery. In the late 1970s, congressional and presidential interest, and an article by columnist Jack Anderson, focused on the Army's oversight of the platoon's actions. Finally, in October 1981, the Army awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for Extraordinary Heroism to the I&R platoon. Lieutenant Bouck and three other men received the Distinguished Service Cross, five others the Silver Star, and the nine remaining platoon members who fought at Lanzerath received the Bronze Star with a Valor Device. The platoon thus became World War II's most decorated for a single enemy engagement.9
One historian succinctly summarized the I&R platoon's exploits stating, "The I&R platoon's action exemplifies the determination of the American soldier and what he can do when properly prepared, motivated, and led." Their conduct offers military intelligence soldiers and leaders a superb example of the initiative, adaptability, and bravery necessary when faced with any combat situation.10 Endnotes: 1. John R. Finch, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired) and Major George J. Mordica II, "Miracles: A Platoon's Heroic Stand at Lanzerath, " in Combined Arms in Battle Since 1939 (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 1992), 179.
2. Table of Organization and Equipment 7-12, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Infantry Regiment (Washington D.C.: War Department, 26 February 1944), 2-3.
3. Organization, Equipment, and Tactical Employment of the Infantry Division (United States Forces, European Theater, The General Board, 1945), 5. Because of their unit name, primary mission, subordination under the regimental S2, and focused training in reconnaissance and surveillance, World War II officers considered I&R platoon members as intelligence soldiers. Although most were basic infantrymen, they went through rigorous tactical intelligence scouting, patrolling, and observation training. Some units sent their I&R platoons through the Division Intelligence Course at the Military Intelligence Training Center, Camp Ritchie, Maryland. The platoon often consisted of the brightest and most physically fit soldiers in the regiment. In 1944, many soldiers from the Army Specialized Training Program filled the ranks of I&R platoons throughout the Army.
4. Special Orders Number 240 (Belgium, APO 449, U.S. Army: 394th Infantry, 22 November 1944), 2.
5. Finch and Mordica, 175.
6. Charles B. McDonald, A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge, The Greatest Single Victory in U.S. Army History (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985), 177.
7. John S.D. Eisenhower, The Bitter Woods: The Dramatic Story Told at All Echelons, from Supreme Commander to Squad Leader, of the Crisis That Shook the Western Coalition Hitler's Surprise Ardennes Offensive (New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969), 188-189.
8. Finch and Mordica, 177-178; Eisenhower, 192-193.
9. Gerald Astor, A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It (New York: Dell Publishing, 1992), 479-486; General Orders Number 26 (Washington D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 29 October 1981); Finch and Mordica, 178-179.
10. Finch and Mordica, 179.
Captain(P) Della-Giustina taught military history for two years at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and is currently an MI Advanced Course instructor. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and has a masters degree in history from West Virginia University. Readers can contact him at (520) 533-6304, DSN 821-6304, or on E-mail at dellagij%[email protected]