A Night Before Christmas 1944
Story submitted by Brooks O'Kane
Written By Robert M. O'Kane
Hampton Union, Tuesday, December 21, 2010
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
The history book of the 7th Infantry Regiment makes no reference to Christmas 1944.
Rather, in clipped, precise military language, one reads these kinds of statements:
In the period of 21 and 22 December the First Battalion was relieved of its Rhine River positions in Strasbourg and moved to the fringe of the 'Colmar Pocket.' Company B established a road block near Ostheim, Germany, with an outpost about 1,000 yards east. Patrols were conducted daily and nightly. The patrols were set up to try to make contact with the enemy, to try and get prisoners. Sometimes they failed to contact the enemy, but quite often enemy were encountered and pitched battles resulted." So much for the official history of late December 1944.
But there is more.
On Christmas Eve one of those patrols was out seeking contact with the Germans who were still in control of nearby villages. The main goal was to try to get some prisoners for questioning.
It was cold, but there was no snow; a raw, starless, moonless night. This was about the fourth or fifth night of patrolling for this group of about 10 soldiers. The terrain was fairly well known. The mission had barely started when the patrol came under sporadic mortar fire. A barn nearby offered some temporary shelter but it was clear that it was a good target for enemy fire and that the thing to do was to get out and look for open ground, use it for protection, and get back to friendly lines quickly. Orders were given: move quickly, singly in a given direction and re-group some 200 yards beyond by the railroad station.
Wire fences obstructed the movement at one point. Two soldiers were to hold up the strands to allow each of the others to crawl through. The next to last man to start through suddenly, silently drops and there is the almost simultaneous sound of a rifle shot. The source can't be located in that split-second of terror. The men move out as instructed.
The patrol leader checks the fallen soldier. He is dead. A quick search is made of his clothing for personal effects. A wallet is found containing pictures of a young woman, other people, some notes, addresses. The dog tags? Take them or leave them for identification when he is found? Leave them. We can't take him back with us.
A bit later contact is made with some medics and they are told where he is.
Who was he? The face now dead, looked only vaguely familiar. He was a recent addition to the platoon. So many replacements lately made it almost impossible to get to know, really know, anyone until he had survived at least a couple of weeks. Those who did survive did know each other. It was a survival game based not so much on the usual idea of friendship but more on the idea of an ally for mutual survival. It was a close and necessary alliance — sometimes ending up in a friendship.
The dead soldier was obviously not to be a survivor. Who was he? A later check with others in the platoon, and a second look at his wallet, revealed him to be a just-arrived replacement. He was a staff sergeant. He was from Dallas. He was young — as was most everyone else there. He had a family. His first name was John, middle initial E, last name Thurmond. That is all we knew. Infantry soldiers traveled light.
He is not mentioned in the historical account of late December 1944 — it is described as a time of "defensive positions" in the book.
He was the only soldier in the entire regiment who died, so silently, from a bullet fired from somewhere by someone unknown to any of us, which found just him on The Night Before Christmas.
I remember this vividly. I was his patrol leader.