As brutal warfare raged between German and American forces in the Hürtgen Forest during World War II, Pvt. William H. Edwards ventured out on a night patrol with five of his comrades. Edwards was a member of the fierce 4th Infantry Division, the “Ivy” division that had been the first U.S. unit to hit Utah Beach on D-Day. He was also a married man with six children. He had everything to live for and was more than ready to fight the Germans.
Yet Edwards would soon find himself immobilized and at the mercy of his enemies—who, far from showing any mercy, tried to transform him into a tool to kill his own comrades. The incident was noted in the 4th Infantry Division’s official history. The fact that Edwards survived this terrifying ordeal owed to sheer willpower.
The night patrol’s probe through the ominous Hürtgen Forest went quietly at first. Yet as the G.I.s sneaked closer to the German lines, Edwards stepped on a mine. The forest was a perilous maze of deadly mines—made even more difficult to detect, let alone disarm, due to thick undergrowth and uneven terrain. Edwards was one of many men who ran afoul of hidden German explosives during the battle.
The blast severed his right foot clean from his body. By all accounts, Edwards should have bled to death without treatment, but the force of the blast blew his arteries inward, sealing his veins. He was in great pain and unable to move–not even to attempt to bandage himself. He was also stuck in an open area close to the German positions.
Stranded there in the darkness, Edwards waited until light came the next morning before trying to get help. He yelled loudly for a medic. His cries brought over two U.S. Army medics. They immediately crawled into the open to try to rescue him.
However, Edwards’ yelling also had unintended consequences. The noise also brought over the Germans. At the same time that the medics were trying to reach Edwards, German soldiers had emerged from their positions and were stalking through the woods looking for him.
Failed Rescue Attempts
As medics attempted to drag him away, German soldiers appeared. They fired on the medics, shooting one in the hand. Forced to pull back, the medics promised Edwards they would come back for him. However, the enemy was ready and waiting when the Americans made a second rescue attempt. The Germans let loose on the medics this time with rifles and machine gun fire, making a rescue impossible. It looked like there was no hope for Edwards.
Things were about to get worse. The fall of darkness brought three enemy soldiers to Edwards’ side. He initially hoped they would give him medical attention or a drink of water, which he begged them for. His requests were coldly rebuffed.
As Edwards lay there helplessly, the three enemy soldiers looted his belongings as though he were already dead—rifling through his pockets, taking his field jacket and five packs of cigarettes he carried. The Germans divvied up the cigarettes amongst themselves. Then they produced some equipment and started to turn Edwards into a booby trap.
A Human Booby Trap
The German soldiers wired Edwards with explosives, placing a demolition charge under his back and carefully rigging a series of wires around him. Edwards found himself stuck at the center of an explosive spiderweb. Anybody who attempted to move him even slightly in any direction would trigger a blast with wide-ranging and devastating effect. They then walked off with Edwards’ jacket and cigarettes, cruelly leaving him to his fate.
Edwards lay on the mine for the rest of the night, the next day and most of night that followed. American and German troops exchanged hellish fire over his head as he lay stuck in “no man’s land.” He was nearly strafed by an American plane whose sheaves of fire pierced the earth within 50 yards of him. He received additional wounds as he was hit in the leg by fragments of German 88-mm shells.
“The trees were white with machine gun and rifle bullets,” he later said. He did not expect to survive. “I sure thought I was a goner. I knew I would never leave the forest alive.”
Protecting His Rescuers
Edwards struggled to stay conscious. He knew that if he allowed himself to pass out, any unsuspecting American soldier who happened to try to help him would meet with a violent and undeserved death. His would-be killers had overlooked a couple of cigarettes while they were picking his pockets; Edwards managed to smoke these as he stayed awake. He wanted to be able to warn his comrades to keep away from him.
A pair of fellow American infantrymen finally reached Edwards at 2 a.m. These men were from another company and were sweeping through the area to check for and collect any wounded. Edwards warned his comrades about the mine fastened underneath him and told them to stay back.
Saved At Last
Despite the danger, the infantrymen were willing to attempt a rescue. With remarkable coolness and presence of mind, Edwards managed to give them precise instructions about where the tripwires were rigged to him. One wrong move would result in his death and kill those around him.
With admirable courage, the two soldiers successfully cut the wires and freed Edwards from his torment, which had lasted no less than 70 hours.
Edwards was transported to a hospital in Texas for treatment and later described his ordeal. He survived the war and in November 1946 was presented with a free 4-door Oldsmobile sedan under the G.I. Bill which was modified to accommodate his disability.