... Describing the Battle of the Heurtgen Forest
Editor's note: SilverStringer Irving Smolens is a D-day veteran of the Fourth Infantry Division who landed on Utah Beach at the age of 19 and earned five battle stars, one for each of the major campaigns in Western Europe. His division experienced almost continuous fighting beginning with the breakout from the Normandy beachhead, through France, parts of Belgium and crossing the German border on September 11, 1944. Irv participated in the horrendous battle of the Heurtgen (or Hurtgen) Forest. In light of his extraordinary combat record, Irv is often called on to discuss his experiences of some 62 years ago.
On December 7, I received an e-mail invitation from an acquaintance who told me a talk show host in Asheville, N.C. with whom he had maintained contact for a number of years, wanted to do at least a one-hour segment of his daily program on the Battle of the Heurtgen Forest. So when Ken Bagwell, the host of the program, mailed me and asked me to be a telephone guest on his December 7 Pearl Harbor Day program at 3:00 p.m., I agreed.
I then did a Google search and found the link to his radio program which is available on the Internet and listened to a portion of his program. After a few minutes I became aware that this was a right wing station and that Ken was an Evangelical. I then e-mailed my acquaintance and told him that my own political leanings were the direct opposite of the host's and that as long as he stuck to the agreed upon topic of the Heurtgen Forest I would maintain my promise to appear on the program. I also told him to remind Ken that if he interspersed any political opinions to which I took exception I would have to respond and that doing so could destroy the continuity of the program.
Irving Smolens as a "one man" gun crew in the Heurtgen Forest.
So I did appear and it was a gratifying but somewhat frustrating experience. There was so much more that I had been prepared to tell about that excruciating and horrible conflict that because of time constraints I was not able to tell. I realize that persons holding Ken's position cannot possibly be well versed in all the subjects they tackle and that therefore they have to have a set procedure that they follow in introducing all their guests.
As talk show hosts go, Ken was just fine. He asked some important questions but because he had never been in combat there were others that he should have asked but didn't. In retrospect I think I was able to convey the fact that the fighting ability of three of the best Infantry divisions in the US Army in Western Europe was so impaired in that battle that even after being refitted and brought up to numerical strength with replacement officers and riflemen they were never quite the same.
Irving at the end of combat the day before V-E Day. The howitzer is unattended and not dug in. There was nothing left at which to shoot.
I also indicated that no words or phrases had yet been created to convey the misery, fear and suffering that the front line riflemen had to endure. They had to sleep in wet foxholes and they could not venture forth after dark because anything that moved would be shot at without any questions being asked. Many replacements were killed or wounded as they were being escorted to their foxholes and many became casualties before they even learned who their squad or platoon leaders were or to which unit they had been assigned.
The forest was so thick with virtually no roads or paths that if a soldier ventured forth into the forest without a map or compass he became hopelessly lost and unless he was a much needed supply carrier nobody would go looking for him.
The frustration I mentioned resulted from my inability to describe adequately what I have written in the above two paragraphs as well as other incidents that I had witnessed.
At the end I took questions from three audience members the last of whom interjected a statement about the media not reporting the victories we were achieving in Iraq. I told him that I did not want to get side-tracked on that. I wanted to stick to the subject at hand but I also told him if the Iraqis really wanted freedom and liberty enough that they should fight for it themselves the way our farmers did at Concord and Lexington
At that point time ran out and Ken thanked me for my service in WW II and for appearing on his program. I told him the pleasure was mine.
Note: The focus of this article is on my telephone appearance as the principal guest on a radio talk show. Information about the nature of the battle that appears in the above narrative is my attempt to paraphrase responses to direct questions from the host. Readers who would like to learn more about the Battle of the Heurtgen Forest may do so by starting a Google search.
January 6. 2006