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NAME: Michael R. Zarelli


CAMPAIGNS: Ardennes, Rhineland, Central Europe

DECORATIONS: Combat Infantry Badge

The life of a foot soldier in combat hardly changes from one conflict to the next. The places and the weapons of war may not always be the same, but the terror is familiar to all of us, as my experience during World War II shows.

In 1945 I led a machine gun squad in Company A, 304th Infantry Regiment, 76th Infantry Division, an element in Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. My unit was in Germany, in a sector of the line just east of the border with Luxembourg.

Early on the morning of February 28, my company, along with the rest of the 1st Battalion, was in the middle of an uneventful march. When we reached a wooded area outside Helenenburg, a small town near Echternach, the quiet was suddenly interrupted by a shower of German mortar rounds. The initial salvo hit my company and the adjacent C Company. The incoming fire pinned down both companies, so the enemy had time to zero in on us with their bigger guns. Soon, heavier caliber rounds were hitting the whole battalion. It was the beginning of the most devastating bombardment my unit would endure during the war.

Unable to strike back, we thought all hell had broken loose. When asked by some of the new recruits when he believed the shellfire would end, a master sergeant who had survived the Battle of the Bulge responded with “Men, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

The bombardment continued through midmorning. We had almost gotten used to it, when the Germans began striking us with their deadly 88mm guns. The 88s were so accurate that they could be fired like a rifle at individual targets. All morning, our battalion tried without success to reach regimental headquarters for artillery support.

After one particularly long period of accurate fire, the Germans upped the ante by opening up with their dreadful Nebelwerfer rockets, better known as “Screaming Mimis” to the GI. Each of the weapons could fire six 15cm rockets in seconds. Apart from the weapon’s explosive effect, the noise it made when fired was terrible. The guns were well behind the front lines, and the rockets made a long trajectory and took some time to reach the target area.

Once the rockets were airborne, they emitted a low-pitched whine, similar to a wailing siren, and their journey to the target seemed an eternity for those at the receiving end. As the shells came closer and closer, their screaming became louder, higher-pitched and progressively more frightening. We presumed the terrifying noise was deliberate. If the explosion didn’t kill us, we figured the Germans hoped the sound would scare us to death. When the Mimis’ pitch was at its highest and you felt certain your ears would split, the explosions soon followed.

Those of us who survived that fusillade were greeted with a short and silent pause before hearing the sharp cries of the wounded and shouts of “Medic, medic!” The medics could not reach the wounded, however, because soon more rockets were landing among us. They seemed to never stop coming that morning.

The infernal noise, the explosions and the cries of anguish pushed two from my company over the edge. Losing their senses, the men ran in circles during the bombardment, as if it would somehow help them escape the ordeal. Their odd dance didn’t last long, however. Shrapnel from a subsequent salvo cut them each nearly in half.

Hoping to avert a catastrophe, one sergeant shouted above the din: “God damn it, men, stay on the ground. Lay low and don’t move!” I was forward of my company, fairly exposed and extremely frightened. Certain I was next, I began to pray, “God, please don’t let those shells hit me.”

Just as I began my most earnest request to be spared, there was an explosion a dozen feet ahead of me and shrapnel hit my staff sergeant. It was now my turn to shout for the medic, as Sergeant Snow began to cry in pain.

I had seen many dead and dying soldiers before, but I had never gotten used to it. I became sick looking at the raw flesh and bones of my sergeant. His left arm and shoulder were nearly detached from his body, and I knew he was dying. He lay there and cried: “Nancy, help me! Nancy, help me!”

Minutes later, as the bombardment subsided a little, a medic crawled past me toward Snow. He could tell immediately that the sergeant was beyond help and did what he could to comfort the mortally wounded man by holding him in his arms, speaking to him about his Nancy and assuring him he would be OK.

In the early afternoon, after six hours of incessant bombardment, we heard a distant, weak noise to our rear. It quickly grew louder, and within seconds we realized it was the roar of dozens of airplanes. Looking over our shoulders, we saw American bombers approaching. Within seconds they were overhead, dropping their lethal cargo on our tormentors. When we heard the continuous rumble of explosions erupting on the Germans, we could hardly believe it. Suddenly, the tables were turned and it was now their turn to get hit, their turn to pray, their turn to suffer, and the soldiers in the 1st Battalion were elated.

“Hallelujah!” one of the nearby men screamed. “Thanks for your help, guys!” another shouted. Others among us had more vengeful thoughts: “Give it to them Kraut sonsabitches!” As the airplanes dropped tons of bombs on the enemy positions, all of us rose, waving our guns and shouting our thanks. Their mission accomplished, the planes soon disappeared. Moments later we saw smoke rising from behind the German lines, their artillery now mercifully silent.

We had little opportunity to enjoy the moment, though, before the stentorian voice of our master sergeant could be heard: “OK, men, on your feet. Let’s go get them f—ing Krauts.”


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here