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Band Of Brothers: The Island

Easy Confronts a Company of German SS

Converted for the Web from "Band Of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest" by Stephen E. Ambrose

At 0330, October 5, Winters sent Sgt. Art Youman out on a patrol, with orders to occupy an outpost in a building near a windmill on the south bank of the dike. With Youman were Pvts. James Alley, Joe Lesniewski, Joe Liebgott, and Rod Strohl. The building was beside a north-south road that ran to a ferry crossing on the river to the north, back to the small village of Nijburg to the south.

When the patrol reached the road, Youman told Lesniewski to go to the top of the dike to look things over. When he reached the top, hugging the ground as he had been taught, Lesniewski saw an unexpected sight, the outline of a German machine-gun set up at the point where the road coming from the ferry crossed the dike. Behind it, in the dark, he could just make out a German preparing to throw a potato-masher grenade at Youman's patrol, down at the south base of the dike.

Simultaneously the other members of the patrol heard German voices on the north side of the dike. Liebgott, who was trailing, called out, "Is that you, Youman?"

The German threw the grenade as Lesniewski called out a warning. Other Germans pitched grenades of their own over the dike. Lesniewski got hit in the neck by shrapnel. Alley got blown to the ground by a blast of shrapnel that left thirty-two wounds in his left side, face, neck, and arm. Strohl and Liebgott took some minor wounds; Strohl's radio was blown away.

They had run into a full company of SS troops. It had come across the river by ferry earlier that night and was attempting to infiltrate south of the dike, to make a diversionary assault in support of a major attack the 363d Volksgrenadier Division was scheduled to launch at first light against the left flank of the 506th at Opheusden. Although the patrol did not know it, another SS company had crossed the dike and was on the loose behind American lines. Although division did not yet know it, the attack on 1st and 2d Battalions of the 506th was much more than just a local counterattack; the German objective was to clear the entire Island area of Allied troops.

After the skirmish with the first SS company, the E Company patrol fell back. It was a full kilometer to Winters' CP. "Come on, Alley," Strohl kept saying. "We've got to get our asses out of here."

"I'm coming, I'm coming," the limping Alley replied.

At 0420 Strohl got back to the CP to report the German penetration. Winters immediately organized a patrol, consisting of a squad and a half from the 1st platoon, which was in reserve, plus Sgt. Leo Boyle from HQ section with a radio.

Sergeant Talbert ran back to the barn where his men were sleeping. "Get up! Everybody out!" he shouted. "The Krauts have broken through! God damn you people, get out of those beds." Webster and the others shook themselves awake, grabbed their rifles, and moved out.

Winters and his fifteen-man patrol moved forward quickly, along the south side of the dike. As they approached the SS company, he could see tracer bullets flying off toward the south. The firing made no sense to him; he knew there was nothing down that way and guessed that the Germans must be nervous and confused. He decided to stop the patrol and make his own reconnaissance.

Leaving the patrol under Sergeant Boyle's command, he crawled to the top of the dike. On the other (north) side, he saw that there was a 1-meter deep ditch running parallel to the dike. It would provide some cover for an approach to the road. He returned to the patrol, ordered two men to stay where they were as rear and right flank protection, and took the remainder up and over the dike to the ditch on the north side. The group then moved forward cautiously down the ditch toward the road.

When he was 200 meters from the road, Winters stopped the patrol again and moved forward alone, to scout the situation. As he neared the road -- which was raised a meter or so above the field -- he could hear voices on the other side. Looking to his right, he could see German soldiers standing on top of the dike by the machine-gun position, silhouetted against the night sky. They were wearing long winter overcoats and the distinctive German steel helmets. Winters was about 25 meters from them, down in the drainage ditch. He thought to himself, This is just like the movie All Quiet on the Western Front.

He crawled back to the patrol, explained the situation, and gave his orders. "We must crawl up there with absolutely no noise, keep low, and hurry, we won't have the cover of night with us much longer."

The patrol got to within 40 meters of the machine-gun up on the dike. Winters went to each man and in a whisper assigned a target, either the riflemen or the machine-gun crew. Winters whispered to Christenson to set up his 30-caliber machine-gun and concentrate on the German MG 42. Behind Christenson, Sergeant Muck and PFC. Alex Penkala set up their 60 mm mortar.

Stepping back, Winters gave the order, "Ready, Aim, Fire!" in a low, calm, firing-range voice. Twelve rifles barked simultaneously. All seven German riflemen fell. Christenson's machine-gun opened up; he was using tracers and could see he was shooting too high, but as he depressed his fire Muck and Penkala dropped a mortar round smack on the German machine-gun. Sergeant Boyle was "astounded at the heavy, accurate fire that we delivered at the enemy." He later told Lipton he thought it was the best shooting he had ever seen.

The patrol began to receive some light rifle fire from across the road running from the dike to the ferry. Winters pulled it back down the ditch for about 200 meters, to a place where the ditch connected with another that ran perpendicular to it, from the dike to the river. Out of range of the Germans, he got on Boyle's radio and called back to Lieutenant Welsh.

"Send up the balance of the 1st platoon," he ordered, "and the section of light machine-guns from HQ Company attached to E Company."

As the patrol waited for the reinforcements, Sgt. William Dukeman stood up to shout at the men to spread out (as Gordon Carson, who recalled the incident, remarked, "The men will congregate in a minute"). Three Germans hiding in a culvert that ran under the road fired a rifle grenade. Dukeman gave a sigh and slumped forward. He was the only man hit; a chunk of steel went in his shoulder blade and came out through his heart, killing him. The survivors opened up with their rifles on the Germans in the culvert and killed them in return.

Copyright © 1992 by Stephen E. Ambrose. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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