Tuesday November 7, 2017
Raon L ‘Etape is a small city in the Meurthe River valley surrounded by hills and was the nerve center of supplies and communication for the German system of defense. Over the years, the German army reinforced their stronghold by establishing artillery and observation units on the surrounding high ground.
Both the Meurthe River and the adjacent La Plaine River provided natural barriers for the US forces. The 100th Infantry Division had a plan to out-flank and encircle the German stronghold. While a portion of the Infantry battled the Germans directly with supporting artillery, several battalions moved to the north to cross the Meurthe River in the town of Baccarat. The objective was to cross the river at Baccarat and push south to attack Raon L ‘Etape from the other side. The German defense included minefields and established ground forces entrenched in fortified positions. For about two weeks, the 100th Infantry Division was fully engaged in one of the most difficult battles they would endure throughout the war.
Arriving in Raon L ‘Etape, I drove along the main road into town; it is dedicated to the 100th Infantry Division. In search of a parking space, a street scene came into view that seemed very familiar. The black and white photo at the top was one that I saw while researching my trip. I happened to be at the location shown on the photo. The view is essentially the center of town, and the handsome building in the center is a theatre. The town hall is on the left and as I began to walk around, it was evident that the 100th Infantry Division had left a lasting impression.
The monument from the city is dedicated to the 100th Infantry Division and the 1500 soldiers who were killed, wounded, missing or captured during the battle between November 6, 1944 and November 20, 1944 when the 100th Infantry Division took the city after years of German occupation.
On November 6, 1944, Tom writes a letter to Kate the night before the battle begins. Tom has just received four letters from Kate that were delayed in delivery. Due to censorship, he cannot reveal his location or relevant military information. His only daughter Kathy is fifteen months old and Kate is seven months pregnant. So, from “Somewhere in France”, here are a couple of excerpts:
“…The more you tell me about Kathy, the more I miss her. I’d love to see her do all the things you speak of. Tell me all you can about her when you write.”
“… I’m writing in my CP (command post) tent by candlelight. It is 11:35 pm now and I have a hard day ahead of me tomorrow so I’m going to have to close up shop – But-
I can’t tell you how much hearing from you has meant to me. I love you so much, Kate, and I can’t help missing you terribly, – But c’est la guerre, and there’s no use griping about it.
I love you,
The battle of the Low Vosges begins, Tom does not write a letter for the next fifteen days.
Tuesday November 7, 2017
Baccarat is about six miles up the Muerthe River valley and, yes, it is the home of the Baccarat Crystal factory. King Louis XV gave permission to found a glassworks factory in 1764 and the first crystal was manufactured in 1816. This has long been a classic “company town”. It is far enough away from the German Army protecting Raon L’Etape but close enough to march across the bridge over the Muerthe River.
Two Regiments of US troops are now heading south on the opposite side of the Muerthe River from Raon L ‘Etape. The two natural barriers they must overcome are the La Plaine River, which meets the Muerthe, and the very steep ravines and mountainsides that are extremely difficult to climb. These natural obstacles also create the perfect positioning for fortified German troops and artillery to ambush the bands of US soldiers. This is where the going gets tougher for company after company. The heroic sacrifice of the newly deployed 100th Infantry Division becoming battle tested is documented by significant losses on both sides, but the 100th perseveres.
Tom’s “E” Company crosses the La Plaine, under heavy fire, near the village of La Trouche. The US forces continue deliberatively and push the Germans to the east. After crossing the La Plaine River at La Trouche, Tom’s company needs to get to Moyenmoutier, and scouting missions reveal a significant obstacle that prevents their passage. The Germans are retreating but have many strongholds in the area in spite of an overall retreat. Just above Moyenmoutier is a small cluster of dwellings on a narrow road at the base of a ravine. Scouts relayed that Germans had a large machine gun nest in two homes, one either side of the road creating a chokepoint that would result in a deathly ambush for troops attempting to pass on the way to Moyenmoutier.
Captain Garahan confirms the reconnaissance about the German machine gun nest, and after deliberation of various options, Company E Lieutenant Edward A. Silk steps up and volunteers to lead a small group to attack the machine gun nest. Among his group is PFC Walter Kirk, who returned to this site in 2005 with my brother Peter to describe the events that happened that day. The band made their way through the woods just above the larger home, and Lieutenant Edward Silk earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day. In this view, Silk and his band are in the woods up on the hillside. The Germans in both houses are unaware of the single-handed surprise attack that was about to happen.
Silk’s official Medal of Honor citation reads:
1st Lt. Edward A. Silk commanded the weapons platoon of Company E, 398th Infantry, on 23 November 1944, when the end battalion was assigned the mission of seizing high ground overlooking Moyenmoutier, France, prior to an attack on the city itself. His company jumped off in the lead at dawn and by noon had reached the edge of a woods in the vicinity of St. Prayel where scouts saw an enemy sentry standing guard before a farmhouse in a valley below. One squad, engaged in reconnoitering the area, was immediately pinned down by intense machinegun and automatic-weapons fire from within the house. Skillfully deploying his light machine gun section, 1st Lt. Silk answered enemy fire, but when 15 minutes had elapsed with no slackening of resistance, he decided to eliminate the strong point by a one-man attack. Running 100 yards across an open field to the shelter of a low stone wall directly in front of the farmhouse, he fired into the door and windows with his carbine; then, in full view of the enemy, vaulted the wall and dashed 50 yards through a hail of bullets to the left side of the house, where he hurled a grenade through a window, silencing a machinegun and killing 2 gunners. In attempting to move to the right side of the house he drew fire from a second machinegun emplaced in the woodshed. With magnificent courage he rushed this position in the face of direct fire and succeeded in neutralizing the weapon and killing the 2 gunners by throwing grenades into the structure. His supply of grenades was by now exhausted, but, undaunted, he dashed back to the side of the farmhouse and began to throw rocks through a window, demanding the surrender of the remaining enemy. Twelve Germans, overcome by his relentless assault and confused by his unorthodox methods, gave up to the lone American. By his gallant willingness to assume the full burden of the attack and the intrepidity with which he carried out his extremely hazardous mission, 1st Lt. Silk enabled his battalion to continue its advance and seize its objective.
Editor’s Note: To find this precise location, my brother Peter had taken a photograph when he visited the site in 2005 with some of the 100th. He could not recall the precise location or address but explained that the structure is currently the office/headquarters of a regional nature park. With this limited information, I searched Google Earth and Google Maps to find the place. Based on the expansive roofline of the building on the right I believed that I had found it. I drove my car to a clearing near the roadside and began surveying and photographing. Within a few minutes a man named, Eric emerged and inquired about my activity and I explained. He was a park ranger of sorts and had met my brother and members of the 100th in 2005. He graciously related the specific details of that day, as he knew them and shared an historic photo of the property.
President Franklin Roosevelt had died before the end of WWII and it was President Harry S. Truman who awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in August of 1945. Lt. Edward Silk’s Congressional Medal of Honor is one of only three awarded to over 13,000 troops during the 100th Infantry division campaign of 1944-45.
Thanks to the bravery of Lt. Silk and the thousands of members of the 100th Infantry Division, the towns of Raon L ‘Etape, Moyenmoutier, Le Vermont St. Blasie, Salm and many more were liberated as the German forces hastily retreated. The 100th Infantry Division all returned to Raon L’Etape for four days of intensive tactical training for the next objective; a march to the High Vosges to Bitche and the Maginot line.
Returning to my hotel in the city of Saint Die, I am feeling that all the advance planning and study has paid off. It is like being on a very long self-guided tour that intuitively engages me and offers some nice surprises along the way. Remember, I am flying below the cultural radar and acting like a local. When I stop at the supermarket before returning to the hotel a woman approaches me and asks me a question in French. I have no idea what she is asking me but my façade is clearly working. I put a French twist on my shoulder shrug and smile, Je ne sais pas. Back in my hotel room, it seems that my thrifty nature may have affected my choice of accommodation. The room exudes all the warmth and charm of a minimum-security correctional facility with free Wi-Fi.
The battle of the Low Vosges was a painful and useful lesson for the 100th Infantry Division. They would need every bit of knowledge and determination to be successful in the next phase of war. After the battle ended, Tom received eleven letters from Kate, all at once. When he found time, he wrote to her. This is an excerpt.
“Tuesday November 21
Still Somewhere in France
It must be a couple of weeks since I’ve written you, I’m not certain because it’s hard to keep track of time up here, but this is the first chance I’ve had to write you again.
I can’t say much except that I’ve been in my first battle and it’s really not nearly so bad as the anticipation of it. So don’t worry too much, the Company is damn good and we can take care of ourselves.”