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Operation Elsenborn

On November 3rd, after a month of soft living, while the fronts remained relatively static, the first platoon was suddenly called to duty to perform an operation which was to utilize the month’s training to the fullest. For this problem called for the representation of an infantry division at rest. Brooms, mops, and mattresses were part of the equipment deemed necessary for this task. And the spirited first platooners assured all who would listen that each and every one of them could put in enough rest for a company apiece.

The plan, however, was not meant to be a joke. The 4th Infantry Division was on the line in the V Corps area. It was to move to the north for an attack while the 9th Inf. Div. replaced it on the line. 23rd Hq. was to cover the move by simulating the division moving out of the line to a rest camp in the V Corps area. Enemy agents were known to be operating in the vicinity. It was certain that they had extensive radio interception since three enemy divisional formations and a corps headquarters were present in close proximity to 23rd Hq’s operational area. A fortuitous circumstance enabled the task force Elsenborn, as the detachment from 23rd was called, to take full advantage of this good enemy signal intelligence.

At 1730 on November 3, the various units closed in on their area in Elsenborn Barracks, Belgium, and assumed the name of task force Elsenborn. At that time the 9th Infantry was encamped there, but they were preparing to relieve the 4th in its sector. During the time of their stay there, the 9th took a radio test for all their operators. This, and other indications of the activity of a division at rest, was carefully studied by the staff. By combining the traits of the 4th Division in the line and the 9th Division at rest, it was thought that a faithful picture could be portrayed of how the 4th would act were they actually in the rest center.

Quite a few delays were experienced before the 9th finally took over the 4th’s sector. In the meantime, Task Force Elsenborn remained huddled up in one corner of the camp, taking time out from their blackjack games only long enough to gaze at the “buzz bombs” that were shuttling over every hour or so. The nerve racking inactivity ended on November 7, however. Early that morning, Lt. Daly acting as the 4th Division Provost Marshall, placed the MP’s on their posts. Meanwhile, the rest of the platoon, along with the whole task force, was moved to the main part of the camp.

At the same time, 23rd Hq Co. and Co. C, 603rd Eng. travelled by infiltration to the areas of the 4th Inf Hq Co and to the 8th Infantry Regiment respectively. From here they moved in convoy, with appropriate bumper markings and shoulder patches showing, back to the Elsenborn barracks. Simultaneously, the real units blacked out and began their move to the north by infiltration. Their headquarters and service units moved during the day, but most of the combat elements traveled by night. The entire movement took three days, during which time Task Force Elsenborn represented enough types and numbers of vehicles to indicate the movement of the entire division into the rest camp.

It was the job of the MP’s to conduct these convoys into the camp, and to direct any other military traffic in the area. Previous to this operation this particular special effect had been for “show” only. That is to say, there had never been any heavy traffic circulating in the areas of any of the problems up to that time. On this occasion, however, real MP posts of the 9th Division were taken over. On post #1, where Cpl. Campbell, Pvt. Rupe and Pvt. Greenberg were stationed, for example, there was a crossroads of two main supply routes. The ordinary flow past this point would have been enough to tax the skill of a policeman schooled on Times Square. But with the movement of the 99th Inf Div into that area, and the subsequent departure of the 102nd Cavalry Group, the icy roads became so jammed that the Blarney MP’s were ready to shout for help. In such cases it was not unusual to double the MP strength, and the 9th Div Provost Marshall rose to the occasion by sending down some of his men to assist.

If testimony were needed to prove the faithfulness with which the men of the 406 played their assigned roles, none could be more convincing than that produced on this operation. On several of the posts the men worked and lived with real MP’s. If these men were fooled, - and there was no indication that they ever caught on, one can be absolutely certain that enemy agents, unfamiliar with our army, or MP duties, could not possibly have seen through the subterfuge.

The 24 hour a day show probably would have produced more compromise had it not been for the large amount of activity the troop movements were causing. The 99th Div new to the ETO was having particular trouble trying to assemble its fouled up convoy. They naturally dropped in on the MP headquarters to look at the maps, and quite as naturally, with a roaring furnace inside and driving snow outside, decided to stay there. In addition to learning many tips on traffic direction from the 9th Inf men, the first platoon men also learned from the 99th officers, 101 reasons why a convoy doesn’t arrive according to schedule.

The usual amount of questions about friends in the 4th were received and handled without much trouble. The story that was to be handed out was that the major part of the 4th Division was at Elsenborn barracks, but the particular unit asked for, no matter which one it was, was located elsewhere. The only embarrassment came when members of the 4th MP platoon were asked for. Cpl. Campbell ran into such a case when a member of the 9th Medics asked about his brother. “Never heard of him,” said the corporal.

“Why he’s your cook, you must know him,” argued the brother.

“Oh you must mean Stinky. I didn’t recognize his real name. Sure I know him. He just moved out with a bunch that went north,” answered the quick-thinking corporal.

Pfc. William Kerstein, on post 3, had a different excuse for not knowing a member of his outfit. The questioner was a 99th doughboy who hadn’t heard from his brother in several months. “I’m sorry,” said Wee Willy, “but I’m new to this unit. I was wounded in the infantry and was just sent here as a replacement.”

Pfc Jackie (I’ve been through hell) Powers had his usual tale of tough combat experiences to exchange with some engineers who said they’d had it pretty rough not long ago while working with the 4th Division. On another post, Pfc Joe Palermo captured, or more accurately, was the recipient of one German PW at 2145 hours, the night of November 8. Two members of the 102nd Cavalry turned him over to Joe before he could tell them otherwise, so he brought the sad looking superman to camp and awoke Lt. Daley. Suppressing any desire to deal roughly with the 406th’s first prisoner, the Lt. hastily packed him in his jeep and took him to the Elsenborn PW enclosure.

The men stationed in the rest camp were having a rough time of it indeed. The heavy snowfall necessitated dispatching of vehicles around the camp for the purpose of making tracks to indicate enough activity for a division. This was to forestall detection by low flying enemy reconnaissance planes which were reported over the area, taking advantage of the bad weather. This job, and the detail of feeding the men on post were the only assignments the remainder of the platoon had. The rest of the time was spent energetically simulating a division at rest, - by resting. Movies and showers were available and were utilized to the fullest.

On November 11 the 9th Division was replaced on the line by the 99th, and proceeded to move back into the camp. This necessitated a move of the simulated Cactus force to a small sector of the area. Since two divisions obviously couldn’t occupy the same camp at the same time, there was quite a bit of confusion and some danger of compromise. Fortunately the order to cease operations came through to save the day.

It was not expected that the enemy would be deceived solely, or even mainly by these special effects. Civilians in this unfriendly region were for the most part evacuated from the area. Those remaining had been carefully screened by the Military Government. Furthermore their outdoor activities were limited by the cold and the snow.

The study of the 9th Division’s activities while at rest had given the staff an idea for a sure fire deceptive plan. The 9th had given its radio operators a check up test while they were at the camp. As has been pointed out above, the proximity of the enemy corps headquarters leaves no doubt that all radio traffic was picked up and studied by the German intelligence. The Blarney staff therefore, obtained permission from Corps to give the same test to the simulated 4th Division operators. This would lead the enemy to believe that the radio test was a corps order for all troops at rest. The fact that the 99th Div also took the test when they moved into the vicinity, increased the logic of the operation even after the task force had moved back to base camp. Although only one third of the command of 23rd Hq was available for the operation, the portrayal was thought to have been adequate largely because a division at rest is easily simulated. The cooperation given by V Corps and the 4th Infantry was the most complete that had been afforded up to that time. 4th Division personnel who appeared in the area were completely fooled by the MP’s signs, and truck markings. It was believed that the movement of the 4th to the north was successfully covered from the enemy by the work of Task Force Elsenborn.

As for the 406th, it proved to be the best experience in MP work that could have come their way. They learned how to ask for a signal, how to get rid of questions when traffic is heavy (2 MP’s down and take a left) how to make use of their authority in proper tones, - in short how to look and act the way an experienced MP would. They discovered how necessary it was to observe all landmarks, road signs and military markers in order to answer questions. Most important of all, they found it was imperative to know who were the key divisional officers, the code names of all attached units, and a passing acquaintance with the unit’s history. On subsequent problems this information was made available to MP’s prior to their posting whenever possible.

Trucks were ordered to move back to Luxembourg on November 12 by infiltration. All proceeded without incident except for Sgt. Harold T. Anderson’s “hog squad,” which almost bit off more than any pig could chew. The sergeant’s overlay showed highway N4 running into N18, but somehow or other the driver missed the proper turn. The signs on N4, however, continued to point to Luxembourg, so the sergeant naturally thought he was headed correctly. The members of the squad, seated in the back of the truck had their doubts, however, when they saw their vehicle had passed a barricade with a sign clearly saying “This road off limits by order of the Commanding General.” The guard at the barricade allowed Sgt. Anderson to go through, however, even telling him that he was on the right road to Luxembourg.

At first the little excursion caused wonderment among the squad members in the rear, as they lightly commented on the poor blokes who were living in holes on either side of the road. As they went on further, they noticed the process of digging in was still going on apparently in deadly earnest. Soon a town was entered in which not a soul was in evidence with the exception of one vehicle in a covered position carrying members of a field artillery forward observation battalion. The silence was beginning to get oppressive. Finally the truck stopped – another barricade was blocking its way. In the window of an adjacent home was seen a GI with rifle at port arms. In the front of the truck, Sgt. Anderson was heard asking, “Is this the way to Luxembourg?”

“Yup,” answered a surly voice.

“Is the road ok?”

“Imagine so.”

“Well can we go through?”

“If the Heinies let you,” came the surprising answer. It further developed that the Jerries were shelling the road and probably were taking a bead on the 2nd squad truck right then.

The speed with which driver Al Files retraced his tracks almost got the squad back to the seminary before its scheduled time.

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