HORSESHOE BAY — As Gerald Powell lay in the road, only a few yards from a house full of German soldiers, the distinct sound of an enemy’s boots rang through his ears. The Germans boots had hobnails on the soles to make them more durable. But when a German soldier walked across a hard surface, the hobnails clicked.
As Powell lay still on the Dutch road, the German’s boots came closer. Another American was just a few feet from Powell. A German attack forced the two Americans to jump from their truck, but left them exposed in the road.
During a lull in the firing between the two sides, Powell could hear the Germans talking in the nearby house. Now, one was coming to check on the two Americans, who appeared as if they were dead.
The enemy soldier approached the first American and kicked him a couple of times. No sound.
Then, the German, probably not much older than a teenager, approached Powell.
Each clack of the hobnail boots brought the German closer to Powell until the soldier was standing right over him. Powell held his breath, hoping his heart wasn’t beating too quickly as if the German could hear it in the night. The German reached down and picked up Powell’s arm. If the American moved, he feared the soldier would kill him, or at the best, he’d spend the rest of World War II as a prisoner.
The German held Powell’s arm for a moment and then dropped it back to the ground, turned and walked back to the house.
But Powell wasn’t safe yet. He was still trapped between the German outpost and a handful of Americans.
“Amazingly, I was more calm under those circumstances than when we were being heavily shelled,” Powell recalled from his Horseshoe Bay residence.
Powell served as a medic in the 329th Medical Battalion of the 104th Infantry, a unit known as the Timberwolves. The unit left the states in August 1944 and landed in France. Though D-Day occurred a few months earlier, the war against Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers was far from over. The Allied Forces managed a tenacious foothold in Europe, but now Americans, British, Canadians, French and other allies had a formidable task ahead of them: push the Germans back.
The Timberwolves played a crucial role in making that plan successful.
Now, about 70 years later, Powell returned to Europe along with his wife, Mildred, their daughter, Julie Harris, and her husband, Curt. The goal was to retrace that journey across Europe he made decades ago as a young man.
“Our granddaughter works with an airline, and she wanted us to take the trip,” Mildred said.
It wouldn’t be Powell’s first trip to Europe (he worked as a chemical engineer for a company with locations in many parts of Europe), but it would be the first time he traveled the entire route he took as a soldier. Despite World War II playing a big part of his early life, Powell wasn’t fixated on it and didn’t even attend unit reunions.
“And this time, I wanted to go to Berlin,” he said. “When we were there, we got into Germany, but because of an agreement between us and the Soviets, we didn’t get to go into Berlin. This time, I wanted to go.”
The recent journey started in September with the Powell group heading for the Normandy beaches in France where D-Day began. Though he didn’t take part in that initial invasion, Powell wanted to see them.
One of the most incredible things the Powells witnessed on this trip was the reverence the French, Belgians, Dutch and even Germans had toward American World War II veterans.
“They were so nice,” Mildred said.
“I was amazed by it all,” Gerald said. “They kept telling us, ‘We have not forgotten what you did for us.’”
In one town in the Netherlands, there’s a cemetery for many of the fallen soldiers — including Americans. Not only do community members take care of the graves, there’s actually a waiting list of people who want to help. And that’s the type of feelings and appreciation the Powells witnessed throughout the journey.
During the war, the Timberwolves had been initially assigned to the Canadian 1st Army to help clear the approach to Antwerp in Belgium. This wasn’t an easy task. The British had managed to take the city, but the Germans still held beaches on both sides. It was up to the 104th and the Canadians to secure these areas.
“We were there, and we were very green,” Gerald recalled. “We had to learn the lessons the hard way.”
After helping secure the Antwerp area, the 104th pushed south through Holland and into Belgium. Much of the area in the Netherlands in which the 104th fought actually sits below sea level, but an intricate series of dikes keeps the seawater at bay. Unfortunately for the soldiers, this meant often traveling along the dikes.
“So the Germans knew exactly where we’d be,” Gerald said. If they weren’t shelling the Americans, the Germans would try to flood them out by breaching the dikes. The strategy made it tough on Gerald and the other Timberwolves as they often had to slough through mud and water.
“I don’t think we ever were dry,” he said.
It was during a part of this action, while relieving a British unit, when Gerald found himself in an ambulance full of wounded soldiers. He and the driver were transporting the group to an aid station during the night. With a loaded ambulance, Gerald decided to get out to make room for others. He hitched a ride with an anti-tank team. As the truck rumbled down the road, an officer directed the driver of that truck and the driver of the one following straight ahead down the road.
“It turned out he gave us wrong directions,” Gerald said. They continued for a little bit until the Germans ambushed them from a house on the left. Gerald and another man bailed out of the truck and landed on the road. The second truck veered off to the right, where the Americans took up position and returned fire.
“I can see these guys in the house and the flash of their guns, that’s how close we were,” Gerald said.
When the German came out during a lull in the fire, Gerald thought for certain that if he moved, he was dead. Even after the soldier returned to the house satisfied Gerald and the other American were dead, the danger wasn’t over. He still had to rejoin the nearby Americans, hoping they didn’t mistake him for a German.
Fortunately, the soldier lying nearby also played a pretty good game of possum and was able to alert the nearby Americans that he was friendly, and Gerald followed suit.
While several American units, such as the Big Red 1 and the 101st Airborne, have achieved legendary status in United States, units such as the Timberwolves have garnered similar affection in France, Holland and Belgium.
During their visit in September, the Powell group met Toine and Marianne Vermunt in Holland. Toine, a local historian, wrote a book about the Timberwolves and their battles against the Germans for the town of Standdaarbuiten. There’s even a road in the community named after the unit.
During a ceremony, Toine presented Gerald with one of the first editions of the book.
“It’s written in Dutch, so it’s a bit hard to read,” Gerald said with a grin.
Throughout the trip, people welcomed and embraced the Powells.
“They remembered,” Mildred said. “And what was amazing was you have people who are the third generation from (World War II), and they still were so grateful.”
At one stop, locals took Gerald on a Jeep tour of the area in which he had served 70 years ago. Some places he remembered, but others he didn’t. Part of it could be because the unit moved quickly and there wasn’t much time for sightseeing when fighting the Germans. Other places with names he remembered just didn’t look like they did during the war.
“A lot of things changed,” Gerald said. “There were new buildings, new roads. Forests regrew. Things don’t stay the same.”
For the Timberwolves, the push into Belgium also meant a turn to the east toward Germany. The men knew the closer they got to Germany, the harder it would get as the Nazis made it clear they would protect their country — at any cost.
Between the 104th and Germany lay several rivers. One of the first Gerald and his comrades came across was the Mark River, on which the Germans had blown up the bridges. This meant painstakingly building raft bridges or other types of structures to get men and machinery across, sometimes at a heavy price.
The 104th, which had now been assigned to an American division, continued east and back into Holland and another river, the Maas River. They continued through Holland until the Timberwolves made it to outside of Aachen, Germany, in November 1944.
“This was hard duty. This was German territory,” Gerald said. “They didn’t want you in their country.”
The fighting went from town to town east of Aachen.
“Our deal was to clear them all, but this took time,” Gerald said.
On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans launched a last-ditch counterattack to push back the Allies. This became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 104th was engaging the enemy in the towns and cities between Aachen and Duren at this point. With Allied Forces racing to thwart the German push, the Timberwolves dug in and stretched themselves out along the area.
“We were basically told to cover what you got because everything else we’ve got was heading to the Bulge,” Gerald said.
This came during what would be described as the worse winter in 50 years.
Eventually, the Allied Forces prevailed in late January 1945 over the German offensive. With the Germans on their heels, the Timberwolves joined the push deeper into Germany, crossing the Roer River into Duren in late February 1945 on their way to Cologne in early March.
And then it was onto the Rhine River. But taking the Rhine, a major strategic goal of the Americans, proved challenging as the Germans scrambled forces to hold off the advance. Even after the Americans captured the Ludenoff Bridge in Remagen, the fighting continued for at least another week as the Germans battled to destroy or at least severely damage the crossing point.
The Timberwolves joined with the 3rd Armor Division to basically close off what was known as the Ruhr Pocket, an industrial area north of Remagen and east of the Rhine River. Inside the pocket, the Americans trapped about 335,000 German troops.
“They couldn’t do anything because they didn’t have any fuel,” Gerald said. “Our objective wasn’t to take them but to close them off and head farther east. Our goal was to move as fast as we could.”
On their trip this year, the Powells visited many of the towns Gerald served in during World War II. They also visited the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp area where thousands of prisoners died, many from basically being worked to death at the nearby Nordenhausen project.
“At Nordenhausen, this is a hollowed-out mountain where the Germans built the V-2 rocket and the V-1 flying bomb,” Gerald said. He still struggled with the way the Nazis treated people, executing millions or, as in the case of Mittelbau-Dora, leaving many to die of starvation, injuries and disease. “I just don’t understand how people get to the point they can do that to other human beings. It just doesn’t make sense.”
From Mittelbau-Dora, the Powells headed east to Halle. In Halle, they met the son of a former German POW who spent time in the United States during his internment. They also met Mathias, a local historian, who knew a great deal about the Timberwolves and their legacy.
Mathias understood the importance the 104th Infantry played in liberating not just France, Belgium, Holland and the western countries, but also Germany itself. He worked to establish a memorial to the Timberwolves in Halle.
“But this was in the East German area, so it didn’t go up during the Communist era,” Gerald said. After the fall of the Berlin wall 25 years ago and the reunification of West and East Germany, the city of Halle agreed to setting up a monument commemorating the 104th Infantry and the men known as the Timberwolves.
“It was just amazing to see a town in Germany remembering what we did,” Gerald said.
In 1945, Halle was just about as close to Berlin as the 104th and Gerald got to the city as the Soviets reserved that for themselves as part of an agreement. But in September, no such agreement existed, and Gerald and his family made their way to the German city.
The visited some of the historical sites such as Checkpoint Charlie (famous as the spot where people crossed between Communist-controlled East Berlin and West Berlin.) The journey felt complete with the 13-day trip culminating in Berlin. Gerald admitted he was a bit reluctant to make the trip at all, but it was a journey well worth it.
After the war, Gerald never felt inclined to keep up with the Timberwolves via reunions and other things.
“When I was discharged, I was discharged,” he said. “I went to school and then went to work. Seventy years between visits is really a long time.”
Europe has changed in those seven decades as has the United States and the rest of the world. Even Gerald has changed, but one thing that hasn’t is his attitude regarding war.
“I have to tell my kids that this freedom isn’t free. We left 1,500 people (from the 104th) back there,” Gerald said. “But war is a terrible thing. It’s a terrible way to settle things.”
Go to timberwolftrackswithdadbacktoww2.blogspot.com for more photos of the Powells’ journey across Europe.