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Our Rich History: In the WWII Battle of Hürtgen Forest, troops were scattered ‘from hell to breakfast’

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to the NKyTribune

Part 5 in an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the last year of WWII. December commemorates the Battle of the Bulge. In this installment, we continue with true stories of Cincinnati area soldiers Arthur B. Pranger and Harold “Mat” Matson.

Harold “Mat” Matson of Company B, 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion, poses for his photograph before heading overseas in 1944. (Courtesy of Mat Matson.)

On the morning of November 1, 1944, Private Arthur B. Pranger of 536 13th Street in Covington sat in his foxhole on the outskirts of Rot, Germany and penned a letter home. “Dear Mom,” it began. “I received your letter about a week ago, but we’ve been moving around for a while and I didn’t have time to answer it. We were in Belgium for a while but right now I’m somewhere in Germany. That’s all I can tell you. I’m in a rest area right now, but it’s pretty cold right now so I guess winter is on its way. I sure hope it don’t get too cold over here.”

Since September, Private Pranger, assigned to Company A, 86th Mortar Battalion, along with Company B’s Private Harold “Mat” Matson of Wyoming, Springfield Township, had been steadily pushing eastward with Patton’s Third Army toward Belgium in hopes of crossing into Germany by Christmas. After the battle of St. Lo, where the German defeat had been complete, rumors abounded among the troops that the war could be over by Christmas. Little enemy resistance and a speedy movement eastward seemed to confirm it for many. Even Art Pranger and Mat Matson believed it. For a while.

But that autumn was unusually cold and wet. By late October weeks of rain and freezing temperatures had made the land a misery of mud and suffering. Movement of troops and equipment slowed, especially the tanks and heavy artillery. Yet as some divisions dug in for the winter, Pranger and Matson still found themselves on the move in the Hürtgen Forest, firing missions in support of the infantry as ordered. As they made their way from position to position, the men had to occasionally forage for food or procure shelter wherever they could find it. They soon discovered that combat wasn’t the only threat they had to be wary of. Just going from one place to another came with its own measure of risk and danger.

A Company A mortar squad set up and ready for business in the Hürtgen Forest, November 1944. Pvt. Art Pranger is standing at right, with his best buddy, Pvt. Lenny Sersen of Chicago (without helmet), standing in back. (Courtesy of Larry Pranger.)

“We moved to within 20 miles of Cologne, Germany and we set up our mortars in the rear of a farmhouse,” remembered Art Pranger. “Around five o’clock, we were invited in for dinner by a German family. There were about 14 at the table and everyone seemed to be family. They were very gracious and we all joined in.” Pranger found it a little odd that there seemed to be plenty of food and drink on the table for everyone. “We ate our fill, had a nice time, and returned to our mortars,” he recounted. After a while, the farmer came out and gave the soldiers a bottle of wine as a gift. According to Pranger, the company medic confiscated the wine, and after having it tested, found it to be poisoned.

Company B, to which Matson was assigned, sought shelter one night in two large sheds next to an open field. The next morning, six inches of snow covered the ground. But as the company moved out, someone said, “What are those things sticking out of the snow looking like cigarettes?” According to an account by the company’s commander, Captain Warren Hinchcliffe, they turned out to be bombs with tripwires laid out in the night as the men slept. “Had the bombs been placed nearer our sheds, with just two more inches of snow,” Hinchcliffe wrote, “bathroom calls outside in the morning would have been deadly.”

Like Art Pranger, nineteen-year-old Mat Matson was a gunner in a squad of five men operating the 4.2 M2 mortar. “My job was to pull the safety pin and drop the mortar shell into the barrel,” he said, motioning with his hands just how it was done. The 4.2 mortar was a lethal weapon of high accuracy that fired high explosive, phosphorus, incendiary and smoke marker shells.

A Company B gunner sights the 4.2 M2 mortar for firing. This photo was taken by Company B commander Capt. Warren B. Hinchcliffe in December 1944. (Courtesy of Lucy Hinchcliffe Kreader.)

“We’d been in the Hürtgen Forest for 30 days,” he remembered, “waiting for Patton to come up from Aachen with some tanks. We moved out of the forest and into the town of Hürtgen, which was controlled by the Germans. In Hürtgen, we set up our guns in the back yard of a home and waited for orders to fire, which came the first day after we got there.” Company B Commander, Capt. Warren Hinchliffe was there and happened to snap a photo of Matson’s mortars that were set up behind the house. The next day – December 7, 1944 – dawned cold but sunny. By early afternoon, a bristling artillery exchange began with German forces. Matson especially remembered the peculiar whistling or ‘scream’ the German shells made, which GI’s dubbed “screaming meemies”.

As the barrage continued, Matson kept pulling pins and dropping the shells down the barrel, firing one after the other in rapid succession. Then he heard an odd sound from the sky…and without warning there came a blinding, white flash with an explosion and a force that threw him violently up into the air. “It was strange,” he recalled. “I didn’t hear it coming. I was pretty hard hit…the concussion drove me backwards into the gun pit.” He lay there unconscious for some time. His next memory was waking up to voices asking if everybody was alright. “So, I got out of the pit, took one step…and my leg collapsed.”

Looking down, he saw his right leg below the knee still attached, but out of the joint, pointing awkwardly backwards. “I had the good fortune to have a squad leader who had been an Eagle Scout and he said, ‘I can fix it! Now you two men hold him down and I’ll put that leg back where it belongs.’ And you know, he did it! He grabbed hold of the lower leg and he pulled it backwards til he could slip it into the [knee] joint.” In pain and with his right leg badly swollen, Matson spent that night in the basement of one of the Hurtgen houses, but by morning it was clear the war was over for Private Harold “Mat” Matson. Medics managed to get him to an aid station, still “cussin’ like a sailor”, and from there he was sent back to England and the United States.

Photo taken by Company B Commander Capt. Warren Hinchcliffe on December 6, 1944. Harold “Mat” Matson recently identified these as the mortars of his platoon, and the house on the right as the house in the basement of which he spent the night after he was wounded during the artillery barrage of the afternoon of December 7. (Courtesy of Lucy Hinchcliffe Kreader).

By December 12th, Art Pranger and Company A found themselves ordered to Paustenbach, Germany to give support to the 78th Infantry Division, which struggled to keep the enemy at bay along a narrow eastern front. When they arrived, they discovered the line held by only three platoons of infantry – described as “scattered from hell to breakfast” – against a superior German force of thousands. Three days later, they were pulled back and moved to a small provincial town where Division hoped to give everyone a well-needed rest. The town to which they sent them was called Bastogne.

Division considered Bastogne a key strategic point in the overall Allied offensive of the Ardennes and strove to hold it at all costs. “We moved into what apparently had been the former headquarters of the Germans,” Art Pranger remembered. There in an elegant hotel, he was given his own room, complete with the first soft bed he had seen since leaving England. He couldn’t believe the luck! He threw his gear on the floor, flopped down on the bed, and fell fast asleep.

Pranger had been asleep only twenty minutes when he was jolted awake by a violent pounding on the door. It flew open and an agitated soldier shouted that everyone had been ordered to “move out.” When Pranger asked him why, the hurried messenger blurted out, “The Germans are coming!” and then vanished back down the staircase.

Pranger climbed into his jeep in the freezing cold with the other members of his mortar squad and they pulled out of Bastogne. As they moved through the night, he began to notice strange things in the forest. “To the right were dark square objects,” he remembered, “even darker than the surrounding woods and facing obliquely towards the road. Facing in this direction would enable all equipment to move onto the road at the same time. I saw about eight soldiers coming down the road toward us, but we didn’t know they were Germans until they dove into a ditch.”

The town of Hürtgen in December 1944 as Private Matson would have remembered it. In the back yard of a house on the edge of town on December 7th, he was wounded when a German artillery “screaming meemie” shell malfunctioned, lost its thrust, and fell out of control onto his position. (Source: 8th Infantry Division History.)

Unknown to Pranger – and the Allied High Command – German forces had been secretly encircling Bastogne under cover of the bad winter weather in preparation for a massive counteroffensive. The “dark square objects” Pranger saw turned out to be hundreds of German tiger tanks with accompanying enemy infantry waiting patiently under orders along the road. “Our jeeps went right by and no one on either side fired a shot or made any kind of noise,” he said, still amazed about the encounter 75 years later.

At 5:30 the next morning, the convoy reached the far side of the Hürtgen Forest and broke out into a broad, open valley. He was astonished to see tens of thousands of Allied troops, tanks and artillery fill the valley as far as the eye could see. “We were safe,” he said, recalling his feeling of relief. But as the convoy descended into the valley, German forces suddenly cut loose with a massive artillery barrage across a wide, 80-mile front.

The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was over. The Battle of the Bulge had begun.

You can read more about Private Art Pranger’s wartime adventures at www.private-art.com.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer, historian, and a retired military officer. His accounts of the local veterans are exclusive to the Tribune.

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