To make the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest worse, American GIs were badly supplied, equipped, and trained. Incredibly, the US Army was actually short of riflemen since planners in Washington had miscalculated the amount of infantry required to do battle in Western Europe and way underestimated what their casualty rate would be. And their casualty rate was high. By the winter of 1944/45, the US Army was taking 20,000 casualties – killed or wounded – every week. While five million men had been drafted into the American Army, so many were in specialized positions that only 300,000 men were available in infantry and armor to take on the Germans in North West Europe in late 1944/45.
Cooks, clerks, and surplus ground crew from the US Army Air Force (the US Air Force was part of the US Army until 1947) were rounded up and sent into the line as infantry replacements. Support formation commanders who were ordered to produce a certain number of infantry replacements sent their misfits and jail birds. Men in rear echelons convicted of various offenses short of capital crimes were offered service in the infantry instead of imprisonment. Although most of the German Luftwaffe had been shot out of the sky, the US Army still deployed 198 anti-aircraft battalions. Finally the absurdity of that was noticed and 52 battalions were broken up, producing 38,000 infantry replacements.
Few of these replacements had received substantive infantry training and there wasn’t time to train them. Because the US Army was short of men, it could not pull formations out of the front line for rest, refit, and the training and absorption of replacements. In order to bring decimated units back up to strength, individual replacements were sent.
Those unfortunates were led at night to a foxhole by a corporal or a sergeant. The replacements did not know anyone, did not know their officers or NCOs, did not know where they were, and did not know where the enemy was. It’s hard to imagine a lonelier feeling. Many did not even know how to fire a rifle and many were usually killed or wounded the first day. If one of these men survived for a week or two, he would find himself one of the few veterans and probably be made an NCO. That’s how high the casualty rate was. Many units suffered losses of 150% meaning that all the original men in the formation had been killed or wounded and half the of the new men used to bring the unit back to strength were also killed or wounded. This might happen in a few weeks.
In the Hürtgen Forest hot food was a luxury seldom seen by front line troops. Men lived for weeks at a time on canned rations – constipation being a side effect relieved only by bouts of diarrhea the men suffered because of bad water, fear, sodden food, dirt, and disease. Soldiers went weeks at a time without any hot water available for bathing, washing uniforms, or shaving. Consequently, they simply wore the same damp and dirty underwear and undershirts, sweaters, field jackets, and heavy pants. They stank. They got skin rashes. Hot coffee was a luxury. There was hardly enough potable water available to drink much less brush one’s teeth. Personal sanitation was impossible.
What is even hard to understand is the US Army’s constant neglect of the well being of front line US infantry in World War Two. What I have described isn’t isolated. It was the norm and is recounted in memoir after memoir. In the Hürtgen Forest campaign, critical items were in short supply and never issued to the troops including the most important of all: US Army winter boots which the army referred to as ‘shoepacs’. Curiously, almost all rear echelon units had these boots.
These were lace up boots made from rubber lowers and greased leather uppers. Boots made by L.L. Bean and sold by them for decades look exactly alike winter boots issued by the US Army. The regular leather boots the men wore were not waterproof so their feet were always wet. Foxholes usually had water in them. There were thousands of cases of trench foot which occurs from prolonged immersion in water. Symptoms included numbness in the feet, swelling, blisters, open sores, and fungal infections. If left untreated, gangrene sets in and part or all of the foot must be amputated.
In Hürtgen Forest the men lived in the open, exposed to the elements. GIs did not have all weather sleeping bags, just blankets. Their main protection against the elements were wool overcoats which became so heavy when wet, the men threw them away and just shivered in their regular field jackets. Almost no one was ever dry because of the constant rain or snow. Men would march for miles for their jump off position for an attack and they would be soaked with perspiration. Upon reaching their objective, they often had to dig in and wait for night to pass. Their uniforms would freeze to them.