James H. Burke


It was dark again when the squad was awakened, given another meal of canned rations, and loaded into the squad truck. Not one of the men had the slightest idea of where they were going. This mission seemed to be highly secret and quite screwed up from the beginning. It started out in a column of three or four trucks, soon stopped, waited for what seemed like hours, returned to the CP, waited for awhile, then finally started out again.

In talking to members of the first platoon, it was learned that a bridge that had been blown earlier by them in a town called Martelange had not been completely destroyed. They were now heading down the same road which would take them to that bridge.

Occasionally, their supplies included defective explosives. As a result, no matter how well the explosives were placed, or what quantities were used, a bridge might remain in semi-operating condition after setting off the charge. This was not a problem if the bridge was being destroyed to clear if from the area, in order to replace it with another bridge. It could always be reloaded with more explosives and finished off. However, when blowing a bridge as a barrier defense - as in this case - with the enemy there, the bridge had to be recaptured first. This, evidently, Jimmy Burns decided, was most likely their mission that night.

They arrived at the edge of the town around midnight on foot, having left the trucks with all of their gear in another small town about five miles back. Corporal Burns and his squad leader, Sergeant Rod, along with all the other noncoms, were called to a meeting behind a small shack to the rear of where the column had been halted. There the noncoms were told that this group was a task force, with the mission of recapturing the town of Martelange and defending the partially destroyed bridge against enemy crossings.

Earlier reconnaissance revealed that the bridge was still usable to light vehicles and infantry, even though a tank could probably not get across it.

In the dark, Jimmy Burns did not recognize all of the men there. He decided that some of the officers must be from other companies or headquarters staff.

He and Rod returned to their squad and told the men to spread out in the ditches alongside the road, as they had been instructed by the captain in charge of the task force.

A short time later, Burns was again called back to the rear of that same shack, which by now was identified as the task force CP. This task force had started out with Burns' own company commander in charge, a captain named Ambrose Marion. The men had always called him Blinkey, because of his habit of nervously blinking his eyes whenever he talked to anyone.

Captain Marion had been company commander of B Company from the very beginning, back in basic training when the battalion was first activated. He was disliked intensely by the men, who considered him to be a poor leader and the most chicken shit officer in the entire battalion. Their estimation of him had proved to be correct many times in the past, because of his cowardly behavior each time the company had been engaged in battle. Now was no exception.

When Burns arrived at the task force CP, he found that another captain named Stern was in charge. Captain Marion was still there, but was lying on the ground all covered up with other officers' coats. He was shivering and shaking with a conveniently contracted case of flu.

Burns recognized Captain Stern as someone he knew quite well, having had him as a platoon lieutenant, briefly, in basic training. He was regarded as a good officer, and one that the men would gladly follow into battle. Captain Stern had been transferred to the headquarters staff and was in charge of intelligence for the battalion. It was he who had determined that the bridge at Martelange was still partially standing. His original purpose on this mission had been as an adviser to Captain Marion.

"What a lucky break, to have Captain Stern take over the task force," thought Jimmy Burns, as he waited to talk to this captain, who was busy advising a lieutenant as to where he wanted some of the men located. Jimmy had a great fondness and admiration for Captain Stern, who had been responsible for Jimmy's promotion to corporal after only a few weeks of basic training.

Later, Captain Stern recommended that Jimmy be sent to a special training program, after which he was tested and interviewed for Officer Candidate School. At that time Burns was only nineteen years old. The minimum age for Officer Candidate School was twenty-one; however, the age limit could be waived if exceptional ability was evident.

Jimmy failed to pass the test, but upon his return to the battalion, it was Captain Stern that counseled him on his shortcomings.

They met once more after that in Normandy, when Captain Stern showed up in B Company area one day and asked for Jimmy Burns, plus an interpreter nicknamed Frenchie, to go with him into a nearby village. Frenchie's real name was Armand Gregoire. He spoke excellent French because his parents were French-Canadian.

The three spent several hours questioning villagers relative to rank, insignia numbers, and location of Germans who had been living in the village prior to the invasion.

Although Jimmy and Frenchie were never told the purpose or results of this mission, Jimmy felt good about Captain Stern having selected him for it.

During the jeep ride back, Captain Stern had, once again, talked to Jimmy about his career future, and advised him regarding what he must do to be promoted to sergeant. He also told him that he had asked Captain Marion to release Jimmy for transfer to the Intelligence Section. Captain Marion had refused, citing the present shortage of men in the company, and the fact that he needed some time to sort out replacements that were to arrive soon.

"Someday soon, I hope to have you with me full time as battalion intelligence sergeant," Captain Stern had said. "Intelligence experience will help you later on as you pursue an officer career in the Army."

Captain Stern turned away from the lieutenant and greeted Jimmy Burns, the thought occurred to Jimmy that the captain must be terribly disappointed in him because he was still a corporal. Instead, Captain Stern seemed pleased to see him, and immediately told him that he had seen Jimmy's name on a promotion list that only required final approval by the battalion commander.

"After that it will only be a formality to have you transferred to my intelligence group. Do you still want the job?" asked Captain Stern.

"Yes, I sure do," replied Jimmy Burns.

Captain Stern went on to explain that he had selected Jimmy for a patrol assignment because he knew that he could depend on him to do a good job. He said that he had personally observed the German troop movements through the town that afternoon. As far as the captain could determine, no vehicles had crossed the bridge, and it was pretty well destroyed, but not completely. All tanks and heavy vehicles had been routed north, up the highway on the other side of the bridge. This road led directly to Bastogne.

Except for a few guards directing traffic, he did not believe that the Germans were occupying the town in force. The bridge actually separated the town into halves, with buildings being located on either side.

With Jimmy Burns holding a flashlight cupped between his two hands, the captain drew a small sketch of the town layout and told Jimmy to take a patrol into the town. He wanted a first-hand report of the bridge's condition and verification that more German troops had not moved into the town after he had left his observation position several hours ago.

He told Jimmy to sneak in quietly, and to avoid contact with German sentries, should any be posted on this side of the bridge. Burns was to make the patrol as quickly as possible and report back to the captain upon his return.

Jimmy left the CP and returned to the squad to select his volunteers for this assignment. Volunteering for anything was unheard of in most Army units, and it was kind of a joke to say that one was selecting volunteers to do something.

Sure, the Marines, the Airborne, Commandos, Rangers, and certainly, many infantry divisions had true volunteers, but in most outfits, the old Army expression, "I want three volunteers: you, you, and you," prevailed.

He always selected Frenchie for something like this in case they should meet civilians along the way. Jimmy selected a couple of other men who seemed to be alert, then started down the road with them toward the bridge. The night was so dark that the patrol proceeded down the road almost huddled together. Wisps of fog swirled around the group of bodies as they moved along. They walked quietly, picking up their feet with every step to avoid making noise.

They had gone less than a mile when they reached the bridge entrance without seeing anyone or hearing anything.

It was very dark, but Jimmy could make out the demolished sections of the bridge hanging down into what looked like a shallow creek. He motioned the other three to spread out and dropped to one knee with his rifle poised in readiness. The others took a similar stance, but moved to the right behind a stone wall that guarded the bridge entrance.

Jimmy Burns then waited a few minutes before stepping out onto the bridge abutment. When he touched an upright post, that section of the bridge seemed to sway, somewhat like a foot bridge suspended over a deep gorge that one often saw in a Tarzan movie.

He kicked hard at a loose board, and it went noisily tumbling down the bridge roadway into the water below.

He quickly moved back to the stone wall and took cover with the rest of the patrol. He then waited to see what kind of response was going to come from the other side of the bridge.

After a couple of minutes of silence, he decided that any enemy on the other side would surely have been alerted. It was so quiet it was frightening. Jimmy started to whisper instructions to the rest, but found that his voice wouldn't function. Only a wheeze seemed to come out.

Deciding that the mission had been completed, he motioned to the others to follow and moved back out onto the road for the return trip.

They heard German voices coming from the other side of the river just as they reached the last house on the road out of the town. The patrol stopped for a moment to listen, but heard nothing further. Deciding the voices were those of traffic guards who were stationed some distance from the bridge, the patrol returned quietly back up the road to the starting point.

After dropping the other three men off, Burns went back to the CP to report his findings to Captain Stern. The captain seemed relieved that they had not seen or heard any Germans at the bridge and was satisfied with the assessment that the bridge was destroyed sufficiently to prevent tanks from crossing over it. He confirmed that traffic guards he had seen earlier were some distance from the bridge and would have taken some time to get to the bridge to investigate a noise.

He dismissed Burns with a comment like, "Well done," and Jimmy returned to where the rest of the squad was resting in a ditch alongside the road. Throughout the night, traffic noise could be heard coming from the direction of the town, including tanks - but everything seemed to be moving north toward Bastogne, exactly as the captain said he had observed during the daytime.

It was almost daylight when they received orders to move out of the ditches, and to walk slowly, but quietly, into the town. Again, the trip passed without incidence until they took up a position behind the same stone wall that Jimmy Burns and his patrol had hidden the night before.

Once in this position, they could see immediately that the enemy was, indeed, now on the other side of the bridge.

Two large tanks were sitting on the opposite approach with their big guns pointing right at them.

Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The enemy tanks opened up with their big cannons and machine guns, tearing huge chunks out of the wall and the surrounding buildings.

The task force retreated back across the street behind a house that had a barn attached, with stables in the basement.

Several attempts were made to position machine guns so as to keep enemy troops from crossing the bridge. A couple of bazooka rounds were fired at the tanks without success.

After what seemed like hours, some of the task force, including Jimmy Burns, wound up trapped in the stable of the barn, along with several cows. Captain Stern was alongside Jimmy in the stable, while his other officers and the rest of the group were spread around in the few buildings that were still standing on this side of the town.

The cows mooed incessantly; this battle had interrupted the milking process, which must have just about begun when the firing started. There were milk pails all about.

One of them sat half full underneath the first cow in the stable, right next to the small window through which they had all entered.

The tank's guns fired constantly, leveling buildings closest to the bridge first, and then - finally - the upper level of the building where they were holed up. More and more of the task force men came into the stable, as gradually, they lost the protection of the buildings where they had sought refuge.

Finally, the shelling stopped, and soon thereafter German infantry appeared at the small window, each firing several rounds from automatic weapons into the stable. The cows mooed and groaned as bullet after bullet hit them with a loud splat!

The gunfire ceased periodically, at which time Jimmy Burns could hear German voices discussing the situation.

He wondered why the Germans kept returning to the window demanding surrender. Later he would learn the Germans had good reason to suspect Americans were in the stable. Fortunately, sounds emanating from the cows prevented the Germans from hearing any noise the American soldiers made as they moved about seeking safer locations.

During one particularly long period without gunfire, the owner of the property walked in through the doorway of the stable. Upon seeing the Americans, he beat a hasty retreat back into the cellar of his home.

Staff Sergeant Hogar squeezed in between Jimmy Burns and Captain Stern to report that the only remaining men of the task force were now crammed into the stable. The others had surrendered when they were caught in the open, trying to get up to the road and out of town. Sergeant Hogar also reported the incident of the Belgian civilian entering the stable. Hogar told Captain Stern he thought the civilian would soon be reporting what he had seen to the Germans. He also suggested that perhaps it was time to surrender.

"There goes my promotion and transfer," thought Jimmy Burns. He had spent most of last night thinking about how proud his Uncle Tip would be when he received the news of Jimmy's promotion. He had thought about Sergeant Eddie Boyd, too, and could hardly wait to get a letter off to him with the announcement. Now, he had to wonder what the two of them would think about his being captured. A lousy tum of events for a soldier that wanted to become an officer.


The cows continued to moo as they shifted their feetabout in the straw beneath them. This was the only noise heard in the stable for several long minutes. There were only three cows and an equal number of empty stalls in the small stable. GIs occupied the empty stalls or lined the floor along the back wall of the little room. Captain Stern, Sergeant Hogar, and Jimmy Burns were in the stall farthest from the entrance window.

"It looks like we are going to have to surrender," Captain Stern whispered to Jimmy Burns. "It's only a matter of time before a grenade comes through that window."

"What should I do?" asked Jimmy Burns.

"First, pass the word that we are surrendering. Then take this white handkerchief to the window and wave it. Holler komrad, but don't stick your head out the window until you're sure they understand." replied the captain.

Jimmy Burns took the handkerchief and slid on his belly, backwards, out of the stall that he had been sharing with the captain and Sergeant Hogar. He rose to his knees just as another burst of fire from the Germans came through the window. The noise was deafening and had a numbing effect on Jimmy Burns. He jumped to his feet, rushed to the window, waved the handkerchief, and shouted hysterically, "Komrad, komrad!"

The German soldier who had been firing in through the window seemed surprised. He jumped back from the window and fired his machine-pistol aimlessly into the air. The German said something that sounded like, "Come slowly, with hands up."

Jimmy Burns climbed out the window, and the rest of the group followed, one at a time. As they were being lined up alongside the farmhouse that adjoined the stable, Jimmy saw several American GI overcoats, including his own, piled at the foot of a German soldier. The German was going through the pockets of each coat and dumping out the contents: ammunition, food, candy, cigarettes, even personal letters.

Jimmy thought about the letter he had just received from his mother. He hadn't had time to read it carefully, but remembered some confusing information in it about his Uncle Tip losing his master sergeant's stripes.

The overcoats had been taken off by Burns and the rest of the men prior to entering the stable, so they could squeeze through the small window. The overcoats had tipped off the Germans to the fact that the Americans must be in the stable. This is why they kept firing in through the window.

A German soldier about fifteen years old started to offer an overcoat to Jimmy Burns when a German sergeant standing nearby began shouting and grabbed the overcoat from the young soldier. The German sergeant then pointed his machine-pistol at the pile of coats and fired a stream of bullets into the pile. It had started to snow lightly; Jimmy Burns knew he was going to miss the warmth of that big overcoat. Little did he know how serious a loss this would be when over the next few weeks he would suffer the most severe cold and misery of his young life.

The Germans marched their prisoners single file to the bridge, which proved to be strong enough to support foot soldiers, if not heavy vehicles. Crossing the bridge was difficult. One side sloped steeply into the water, which meant wet feet for everyone to get to the other side. The prisoners then had to scale a three-foot wall of the last pier before walking across that wobbly section.

A couple of German scout cars had already crossed over somehow, and were heading up the road toward the next town. The Americans had left vehicles in that town the night before. Jimmy Burns thought about the rest of his personal belongings which had been left with the squad truck. He wondered if the Germans would destroy the rest of his clothing as they had his overcoat.

It was late in the afternoon when the group of prisoners arrived on the other side of the bridge. The snowfall was increasing. The prisoners were lined up again, alongside other members of the task force who had surrendered earlier. The same surly German sergeant was shouting, "Fünf Mann, fünf Mann."

The German sergeant walked up and down the line of prisoners; finally stopping in front of Jimmy Burns, he asked gruffly, "Kennen Deutch gesprachen?" He also repeated in English, "Can you speak German?"

Jimmy Burns was scared to death, and kept shaking his head left to right to answer no. The German sergeant kept badgering Jimmy Burns, as if he had singled him out because of the overcoat incident.

When the German sergeant said, "Vous parlais Francais?" Jimmy Burns blurted out, "Une peu." With this utterance, Jimmy had broken the first basic rule of capture. A prisoner was only required to give his name, rank, and serial number to a captor. All other conversation was forbidden. The German then rattled off in French a whole string of phrases that Burns, truly, did not understand.

An American sergeant standing next to Burns then said out of the side of his mouth, "Keep your mouth shut."

Jimmy Burns finally ended the conversation with, "Je nes comprend pas."

Shortly thereafter, the German sergeant was called by a German officer to look at a problem the Germans were having with an American tank. They must have captured it, or found it abandoned. It had been setting there when Burns and his group were marched across the bridge. A German soldier was up on the turret of the tank trying to fire a machine gun which was mounted there. The German sergeant stood next to the tank shouting instructions up to the German soldier in a critical tone of voice.

The unfortunate German soldier could not get the gun to fire and seemed frustrated by all the instructions he was receiving, both from the sergeant and the German officer. He would pull the hammer back and press the trigger, but nothing happened. Every second time that he pulled the hammer back, a live round of ammunition would fly out and bounce off the side of the tank to the street below.

The German sergeant climbed up unto the tank and took over the job of trying to fire the gun. The sergeant kept shouting at the poor German soldier. The results were the same for the German sergeant, as round after round of live ammunition kept falling to the ground.

Another German soldier was busy picking up the fallen ammunition and stuffing them into his pockets. Soon, the German officer joined the other two on the tank turret, all three of them taking turns pulling back on the hammer without success.

The American prisoners were quite amused by all the shouting and arm waving that was going on. Even the German soldiers guarding the prisoners seemed to be enjoying this little scene and only smiled whenever an American would put his hand to his mouth to stifle laughter. It would be many long days before the prisoners would again see an incident as humorous as this one.

Later that night, Frenchie explained to Jimmy Burns what the Germans were doing wrong in their attempt to fire the gun. Frenchie had been to gunnery school and was familiar with this type of machine gun. It was a simple case of pulling the hammer back twice rapidly to negate a safety feature. The Germans did not understand this and never did get the gun to fire that day. The shouting could still be heard as the prisoners were marched down the street a short distance and locked in the cellar of a tavern.

Although they received no food that night, the German guards -- most of whom appeared to be under eighteen years of age - did slip them pails of beer from the tavern above. The German soldiers not on guard duty must have been celebrating their victory; it was very noisy upstairs with singing and foot stomping. The music sounded like it was coming from either an accordion or a concertina.

Sitting there on the dirt floor of the cellar, Jimmy started to note who some of the other men were that had been captured with him. Although the cellar was dark, whenever the German guards entered with buckets of beer, they shined a flashlight around, and Jimmy could recognize most of the faces around him.

On the opposite side of the room, he could pick out others by their voices and decided that they were all from his company. Here, sitting in that cellar, was the complete task force from the night before, except for the officers, who must have been separated and were being held elsewhere.

His own squad was there, plus a squad from the first platoon, all of whom he knew quite well. The only platoon sergeant was Hogar from the third platoon, but none of his men were with him.

Surprisingly, the company first sergeant was there in the cellar with the rest of them. This confirmed Jimmy's earlier suspicion that the task force had been hastily assembled for this mission.

Long periods of silence would be interrupted by a sudden outbreak of whispered conversation among the prisoners. Jimmy Burns had not given much thought to what was going to happen to them until he heard someone say, "If they were going to shoot us, they would have done it up there in the street." Someone else said, "They will probably wait until morning when the light is better." This statement sent a wave of fear throughout the cellar as everyone started talking at once. Nervous voices talked of escape and how to go about it.

Sitting next to Jimmy Burns, on one side, was Squad Sergeant Ray Coon; on the other side, Coon's assistant, Corporal Jim Kelsey. Burns knew Kelsey quite well because they had spent time together drinking beer while on passes, way back in basic training. Burns and Kelsey had received their corporal stripes on the same day, which was the beginning of their friendship, but they were not close buddies.

The little sleep they all got that night was in a sitting position, because there was not enough room to lie down. Kelsey and Burns slumped against each other's shoulders to try to keep warm, and slept as best they could.

The next morning, the prisoners were marched up a long hill on the east side of town, down the other side, and on to the next town. A road sign revealed that this town's name was Bigonville.

For the next few weeks, he would see road sign after road sign with town names he had never heard of, nor could he pronounce them.

They passed through Bigonville-or what was left of it-and were halted at a farm at the edge of the town. The prisoners were herded into a large shed that resembled a corn crib. Open space showed between the boards of this building, and the floor seemed to sag under their weight, as if the building was setting up on blocks without a foundation to support it.

There must have been other prisoners in the shed when they arrived, because they were now crammed into a space much too small for the number of prisoners present. A quick look around by Burns revealed that there could be as many as fifty men in the building.

The man next to him was a complete stranger who kept looking at a map that he constantly removed and replaced inside his shirt, next to his bare chest.

When Burns questioned the stranger, he simply whispered, "Twenty-eighth," and returned to his map reading.

Occasionally, he looked outside through the open space of the boards, as if he were looking for landmarks. Burns saw just enough of the map to recognize it as an American Army grid map, which he had become familiar with during map training sessions in basic training. Others in the building were having conversations, but Jimmy Burns learned little about this stranger.

A German officer suddenly stuck his head in the doorway of the shed and said in English, "If anyone in here is an American officer, please step forward at once."

Two or three of the prisoners worked their way out to the door, including the stranger whom Burns had been observing.

Later, Jimmy Burns wondered if perhaps that stranger and the others who left might have been Germans planted in their midst to gain information. He had told the stranger what outfit he was with. During interrogation later that night, Burns was sure that the stranger had relayed information to the Germans.

Interrogation - when it came - turned out to be nothing at all like Jimmy Burns had expected: a lone prisoner sitting in a chair under a bright light in an almost empty room with the interrogator blowing smoke in his face. Instead, they were led in a group through a hillside orchard to a farmhouse where they all stood around waiting, while one at a time, they were taken into the farmhouse.

It had continued snowing throughout the day, and several inches had piled up on the ground. Jimmy Burns stood there, shivering, without his overcoat. He did have on his field jacket, a wool sweater, and wool shirt and pants, along with his long underwear. He had his wool knit cap and helmet liner, but not the steel helmet; the Germans had taken it from him.

When his turn finally came, he was escorted into the house through a back door, down a long hallway, and into the dining room. The warm air and the smell of food caused a good feeling to ripple through his cold and weary body.

A table in the middle of the room showed evidence of a leisurely meal having been consumed recently. Dirty dishes, glassware, serving bowls, and silverware still cluttered the table. Except for the carcass of a goose, there was not any food left on the table. Empty wine bottles indicated that a group of about twelve people had enjoyed themselves while the prisoners were standing outside cold and hungry.

A German officer sat at the far end of the table motioning Burns to help himself to whatever he could find in the way of food on the table. Although the carcass had been picked clean, Jimmy did manage to get a couple of slivers of meat by digging at the bones with his fingers. He spotted a few bread crumbs at one of the place settings, and picked these up by wetting his fingers in his mouth, then pressing them down into the crumbs.

He was licking the crumbs from his fingers when the German officer startled him by saying, in perfect English, "You are with the 299th Engineers, yes?"

Jimmy Burns' face had given him away; he heard the officer say, "One more 299th," and, "Next," as the guard opened the front door and escorted him back out into the cold night.

Jimmy Burns stood there, again shivering for what seemed like hours, as one by one the other prisoners came out of the house after having been interrogated. They were lined up with the usual "Fünf mann" instructions. By now, it seemed to Burns, the total number of prisoners must be over one hundred.

It suddenly occurred to Jimmy Burns that for the first time since capture, they were outdoors at night, the ideal time to escape. The best time to try to escape, he had been told in lectures, was as early as possible after capture and preferably at night. The farther back a prisoner is taken from the front lines, the better organized is the enemy to deal with prisoners. Infantry units are prepared to handle only a few prisoners while engaged in battle; immediately they tum them over to intelligence units for interrogation. When large numbers are captured in battle, it becomes a problem, unless the prisoners can be quickly moved to rear areas, where manpower is available to provide a sufficient number of guards.

Once again, but only by coincidence, Jimmy Burns found himself standing right next to Corporal Jim Kelsey. Quietly, Jimmy Burns asked Kelsey if he had thought about escaping.

Kelsey stuttered from being so cold, and replied, "Yes, but let's wait until we get warm first."

A helpless feeling came over Jimmy Burns as he stood there shivering, wondering what was going to happen to him.

This is a work of fiction, based on the author's actual experience. No criticism of any person, living or dead, is intended.
Source: excerpt from Fünf Mann, A Prisoner of War Story by James H. Burke, 299th ECB veteran