Source Document: Forced March Major John P. Mohn, HQ Co, 1st Battalion, 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division
Forced March, from Schoenberg – St Vith (Battle of the Bulge, Belgium) to Berchtesgaden in Germany, is the Prisoner of War memoir of the 1200-mile forced march done by Maj John J. Mohn, Hq Co, 1st Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, Golden Lion and has been extracted from a book published in Canton, Ohio, USA and printed by PPi Graphics, also in Canton Ohio, (ISBN-13:978-08-9863465-5-2).
Being a friend of Mandy Altimus Pond, Maj John J. Mohn’s granddaughter, we talked about the publishing of this book on the EUCMH Website and agreed that this work would be a great way to render honor to Maj John J. Mohn and the terrible period he experienced while being one American Prisoner of War in Nazi Germany during the last year of WW-2. Before starting with the text, I would like the reader to notice that combat photos from a surrendered unit in the combat zone don’t exist, especially with the 422 and the 423-IRs of the 106-ID. On the morning of Dec 16, 1944, these two infantry regiments, trapped between two German main axes of penetration; on their front, elements of the 5.Panzer-Army (Manteufeul) coming from Blieaf in Germany and heading to St Vith and on their rear, elements of the 6.Panzer-Army (Dietrich) coming from Lanzerath and Manderfeld heading to Liège via St Vith, didn’t give a once of a chance to these two Regimental Combat Teams (422 and 423) which once cut off, without supply, couldn’t withdraw in any direction. These men combated up to the last cartridge, then destroyed all their guns, machine guns, and rifles, and finally surrendered.
To my wonderful wife, Cheri, and loving daughter, Debora Mohn Altimus; without whose prodding and encouragement this book would never have been written. And to my son-in-law Richard Altimus who assisted in the computer editing of this book. Editor’s Note: Additional thanks to granddaughter, Mandy Altimus Pond, who helped me with the publishing of her grandpa’s book.
Maj John J. Mohn, 1/442-IR, 106-ID
When WW II’s Battle of the Bulge began with a surprise German attack on Dec 16, 1944, troops of the US 106th Infantry Division occupied the most exposed American positions. They had been in the European continent for less than two weeks, and cut off from reinforcements, were left to face the German onslaught alone. They fought back, standing their ground, but as their ammunition; food and medical supplies dwindled and the enemy noose drew tighter, over 7000 were ordered by their commanding officers to surrender to the surrounding German forces. Except for the Bataan Death March, this was the largest surrender of American troops during WW II.
Maj Mohn, of Akron, Ohio, the author of this book, was the Operations Officer of the 1/422-IR. He was a citizen-soldier who had volunteered to join the Army as a private in 1941. This is the story of his 1200 mile odyssey as a prisoner of war to the far reaches of the Nazi empire during which he and his fellow soldiers were starved, frozen, bombed, and shot. Because the Germans were unprepared to absorb a massive influx of American POWs and had little space to house them, Maj Mohn’s imprisonment became an almost continuous five-month march through the collapsing and chaotic Third Reich. Initially, he was sent to a camp for American officers over 500 miles away from Poland. He arrived there only to be marched out of the camp a few days later when the Russian forces broke through the German lines around Warsaw.
Seeing the prisoners as a potential bargaining chip and intent on keeping them out of Russian hands, the Germans forced the Americans to make a harrowing march westward across rural Poland and Germany in the dead of winter just ahead of pursuing Soviet forces. After this month-and-a-half ordeal, the prisoners finally arrived at the Hammelburg POW Camp in northern Bavaria, only about 100 miles away from where they started. Two weeks later this camp was attacked and briefly captured by a Task Force of Patton’s 3-A. The Germans, however, soon recaptured the camp and immediately sent Maj Mohn and the other prisoners on another dangerous march which ended at the Austrian border five weeks later they were liberated by American troops.
Through it all, Maj Mohn preserved and returned to the USA where he underwent treatment and rehabilitation for injuries he had suffered as a prisoner of war. he returned to civilian life and developed a highly successful career as a psychologist. But his remarkable experiences in the military never quite left him. Eventually, he put words to paper and the result is the archive you are about to read – one of the very few accounts on this type ever to have been published. More than just a narrative of his experiences as a POW in Nazi Germany, it is a testament to the indomitable spirit of the US soldiers and a reminder to all of us of the sacrifices they made to preserve our freedom.
Before the Battle of the Bulge – Mandy Altimus Pond
About 1937, while attending Akron University, John Mohn took Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. John had no desire to become an officer, but by the end of his training, he had reached the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. In preparation for what appeared to be an inevitable world conflict, Congress passed the Selective Service Act in 1940. This was the first peacetime conscription in US history. Enacted in September 1940, this act required men between 21 and 35 years of age to register with local draft boards. Men were drafted by a lottery system and were required to serve for twelve months. After that year was completed, John was told he would be draft-free and not required to sign up, should a war arise.
On Feb 4, 1941, John decided to enlist for this program, and join the Navy. He drove to Cleveland, entered the Armory, and began the process. He took the written test, passed the physical, and was about to be sworn in when the commanding officer at the Armory said that John’s teeth protruded too much and they would not accept him. John stated in an interview that ‘this is stupid’ and went to the other end of the Armory and enlisted in the Army. At this moment he could have enlisted as a 2nd Lieutenant because of his ROTC training. It apparently slipped his mind and he enlisted as a Private.
John was assigned to the 37-ID at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He volunteered for the Signal Company (Teletype) and the day after he signed up, the teletype was discontinued, so he was reassigned to supply in the Signal Company and was sent to Indiantown Gap Pa. On Dec 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the next day upon request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress declared war on Japan and their ally Germany. This canceled the draft-free status that John had signed up for, as he had not completed his twelve months of training.
His division was scheduled to board a ship headed to the Pacific Theater of the war, but the boat blew up before they could head out.
John was then sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for officer training from February through April 1942. In late 1942, he was sent to Camp Forest and assigned to the 80-ID for a year. He became CO Fox Co, 1/319-IR, 80-ID. His division was in charge of clearing trees in the mountains in preparation for war games, training men in firing artillery, and surviving in realistic battle situations. John was in charge of the logistics and planning for the war games.
The 80-ID was then incorporated into the 106-ID. John was reassigned as Bn OP Officer and sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, and assigned to Hq Co, 1/422-IR, 106-ID. John reached the rank of Captain and was told that he was the youngest Captain in the Division. As Operations Officer, he was in charge of logistics for troop movements. He staged a large 3000-troop parade in Indianapolis in 1944. After our advance movement order was in, we received new equipment, turned in motor vehicles, and did what training we could at odd intervals.
Finally, in September we moved by rail to Camp Myles Standish at Taunton, Mass. This place was known as a staging area where life reached the maximum of not letting anyone know anything at all. As a matter of fact, we existed on a monotonous routine of rumors until the day we redoubled on our tracks, returned to New York, boarded the RMS Aquitania, and departed for Gourock, Scotland, on Oct 21, 1944. The 423-IR with various attached units arrived Oct 27, the 422 and 424-IRs arrived Oct 28 with the artillery and some special units. We moved then to England where we were deployed in one of the most interesting and certainly the most beautiful parts of this country, the Cotswold section of the midlands. The 422-IR was stationed some 12 miles west and northwest of Oxford, the 424-IR near Banbury of Banbury Cross fame, the 423-IR, and the Division Artillery near Cheltenham and Gloucester respectively. Division headquarters and special units were located centrally in this 200 square mile area.
We remained in England preparing for an expected early crossing of the Channel. Between Nov 30 and Dec 1, the Golden Lions embarked for the long slow fifty mile trip from Southampton to cross the Channel. We disembarked at Le Havre and at Rouen, a town about one-third of the way up the Seine toward Paris, and went into bivouac in deep mud in the open fields in a cold drizzling rain, between the Dec 1/8.
During these days liaison officers from the 1-A headquarters arrived at odd intervals with conflicting and inconsistent sets of orders, so that during a 48 hour period we were assigned to three different corps in as many separate locations. Fortunately, troops and staff were arriving in unrelated groups as the weather and the Navy allowed them ashore so that no damage was done except to my disposition. The final messenger appeared on Dec 6 with instructions for us to leave for the St Vith area in Belgium. The first combat team to move, left the area on Dec 8, followed by the others as rapidly as possible. Upon arrival, we were to relieve the 2-ID, then in a defensive position, as part of the VIII Corps whose headquarters was then at Bastogne.
Troops being in the throes of landing after a rough winter crossing, staffs only partly present and maps few and far between, our move to the battlefield was a rather remarkable one and highly successful in spite of its discomfort. The route carried us nearly 300 miles through Amiens, Cambrai, and Maubeuge in France to Philippeville in Belgium. After an overnight bivouac in extra deep mud near the latter town, we passed through Marche and the villages of eastern Belgium to the vicinity of St Vith, arriving during the period Dec 9/15. The relief of the 2-ID’s weary troops stationed along the quiet German border in the Belgian Ardennes Forest commenced on Dec 11, was completed on Dec 13, responsibility for the defense of the sector passing to me on Dec 12. The troops of the Indian head Division assured the men of the Golden Lion Division that there would be little action on this hilly terrain in the middle of winter.
Edward P. McHugh
It was Dec 16, 1944, somewhere along the Siegfried Line near St Vith, Belgium. The German counter-attack that would later be referred to as the Battle of the Bulge had begun. The gray, foggy dawn made a perfect umbrella for the German launching of an onslaught that nearly cost the Allies World War Two. What happened at the Battle of the Bulge may be a well-known story but none of the stories make any reference to the group of American Soldiers taken prisoner at that time and marched for 140 continuous days covering over 1200 long, cold, starvation-ridden, nightmare miles, terminated only by the end of the war in Europe.
Adversity is a mild term to describe the unbearable hardships endured by the ever-changing, ever-diminishing column of men. Temperatures dropped to ten degrees below zero (22°F). There were periods of fifteen days without a single bite of food. All suffered a phenomenal loss of weight (I weighed 65 pounds by the time of the liberation). We had inadequate clothing; many without hats or gloves and at times no shoes. It was especially brutal for the poor Army Air Corpsmen who were only wearing thermal boots with no soles for walking when they were shot down and captured.
The journey was marked by frozen feet, legs, arms, faces, and even blood trails. Treachery, deceit, and fear are just feeble attempts to put into words the anger, horror, anguish, and despair felt by these military men.
The ordeal that the approximately 7000 US soldiers endured between Dec 16/44 and May 2/45 can only be epitomized by saying that a scant thirty of the original group even reached liberation as a unit. Losses of men beyond belief resulted from attempts at escape, exposure, starvation, the sadism of the German Guards, and being strafed daily by our own and Allied planes.
My book is not intended as a condemnation of the German People or Army but does make reference to differing attitudes and treatment by the Wehrmacht, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for being alive, and the Elite SS Troops, who were constantly threatening our lives with attempts to exterminate us with machine guns and failed to provide even the most basic of necessities for our daily maintenance.
The German High Command seemed at a loss as to what to do with so many prisoners and lacked a plan regarding the disposition of us. The result was a wandering march covering three countries with no apparent purpose, with a final goal of holding us as hostages in Berchtesgaden at the end of the war. The consequences for us, as Prisoner of War, were painfully clear. The facts and sequences of events I know first-hand because I was there from the beginning to the end.
I saw dramatic changes in attitudes, values, behavior, and beliefs. Hidden strengths and weaknesses in the struggle for survival were surprising and at times frightening, but the salient factor through it all was that survival is ‘All-Important’ and that the ‘Veneer of Civilization’ is extremely thin.
I couldn’t help being reminded of that famous poem by Rudyard Kipling ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ on that fateful, foggy, grey, cold, drizzling morning Dec 16, 1944. The difference was that instead of ‘cannons’ noted in the poem, we had German tanks to the left of us, tanks to the right of us, tanks in front of us, and tanks behind us. To ‘charge’ ahead would have been to go down the steep slope of an evergreen-covered mountain. The landscape was so much like the mountain areas of Pennsylvania that it was hard to remember that we were in a foreign country fighting a very serious war. Even more serious, we were surrounded and being annihilated by German Panzer Divisions from the left and right of us. German artillery from the front was terrible enough but, to our dismay, the Germans had captured our artillery and were using our own guns to fire upon us from the rear. When we called for supporting fire, they were aiming at us instead of their own troops.
Our Battalion Commander, Col Thomas Kent was killed by a shell coming in from the rear of our ‘Pillbox’ command post. At first, we thought our artillerymen were firing short of their target, but when we heard the German voice on our radio, we realized the awful truth – we were literally at their mercy. The divide and conquer strategy used in the German attack had been completely unexpected and totally effective. The Panzer tanks seemed as numerous as infantrymen would be normally.
I was the Battalion Operations Officer for the 1/422. We were green troops, inexperienced. We had just been brought up to strength by new and very young troops from the United States, Green and young troops refer to the fact that many of the replacements brought to us to replenish the 106-ID had come from colleges, Army Specialized Training Programs (ASTP), and other academic deferment situations. These men were about 18 years of age on average and very angry at being called to active duty. Worse than that, their indoctrination to duty took place on cold, mud-ridden roads walking across France; along with inadequate equipment, fast movement, and confusion, all of this prior to the Bulge attack. In spite of this, however, they gave a very good account of themselves in a no-win situation – where the 422-IR was demolished.
Army Headquarters had put us in this position, just east of St Vith, between Schoenberg in Belgium and Bliealf in Germany, along the Siegfried Line, because they felt that it was the least likely place on the north-south line of our front to be a point of attack – how wrong they were. CCB, 9-AD on our left was either inundated or had pulled out, and the 28-ID on our right flank was being dissected, just as we were. After 72 hours of constant bombarding, we were ordered to ‘attack to the rear’. We had been infiltrated by English-speaking Germans (Panzer-Brigade 150 – Skorzeny) and confusion was rampant. We were being systematically cut to ribbons. Elements of surviving units banded together, forming the most unlikely fighting units.
There were infantry, heavy weapons, artillery, Air Corps, tank, and anti-aircraft men, all pulling together. Then, the inevitable happened – we ran out of ammunition, we were surrounded, getting point-blank fire from the German Mark V Panther tanks and their deadly heavy power 75-MM guns. We were using wet, freezing ditches for cover, breaking out of traps by running behind the tanks. Many men were cut down in their tracks during these attempts. I was lucky. With 107 bullets and fragment holes in my trench coat, all the buckles shot off my boots and even my belt buckle being shot off; I was not touched by a single piece of metal. Divine Guidance or luck was to follow me through the next 5 months, through seemingly insurmountable odds. My radio operator, by my side, was not so lucky, and like so many others was killed instantly by a direct hit from a 75-MM tank gun.
There was something bizarre and unreal about everything happening. As I glanced over my right shoulder, I saw a Major standing dumbfounded with a spent bullet sticking rakishly out of his neck and another officer reaching over and pulling it out in a nonchalant manner, then wrapping a handkerchief around the Major’s throat. My immediate and irrelevant thought was that you can’t put a tourniquet around somebody’s throat but I guess you can because the Major lived.
We continued to try to break out and establish a position which we could defend. As we retreated in the most orderly fashion we could, we began to accumulate men from all different units. The retreat was confused but we kept fighting with what ammunition we could find.
The first night out in our retreat, we pulled into the woods for cover and to rest. Much to our amazement, a large unit of German Soldiers was on the other side of this same woods.
They were being as quiet as we were, not being sure, I feel, what they were facing. We could not estimate the size of this unit, and evidently, they were not sure either since they made no move to come to us. Since we were out of ammunition and could not risk a confrontation, we did not move toward them, nor in any way disclose our position.
At dawn, we were moving out of the woods and noted that the Germans had already abandoned the woods during the night. We rapidly moved to the west, but we were finally completely surrounded by a solid wall of German tanks. For 2 days they circled our position, playing Benny Goodman records, shouting out over loudspeakers how stupid we were to die for a lost cause and propagandizing us with the disloyalty of our wives and sweethearts at home; none of which we believed for a minute.
They would then announce a five-minute break ‘for an artillery barrage’. They continued this process until there were few trees standing in what had been a heavily wooded, evergreen forest. There were few men alive and not wounded.
It was under these conditions that the decision to surrender was made and I will never be able to forget the anguished cries of two young Polish soldiers who had escaped from their German captors in Poland the previous year and made their way to the United States just to join the United States Army, with the purpose of returning to the war to help liberate their own country. Now they faced with the same fate of capture once again.
They pleaded with us saying, ‘You don’t know what it is like. We have come so far and all for nothing. We will not go’. Saying this, they hid in foxholes without taking into account the SS method of finally clearing an area by dropping hand grenades into all possible hiding places. We were able to pull the screaming soldiers out before they were blown to bits by grenades.
After rounding us up, the SS unit took us to a collecting point in a nearby woods and ordered immediate departure to the east. We erroneously assumed that we were to be evacuated but to our horror saw that the line was being marched past a machine gun emplacement, and men were systematically being shot down where they stood or when they passed. It was inhuman; we were outraged and scared beyond belief. No American could conceive of this kind of savagery. Some men tried to run but were shot as they left the column.
Death seemed inevitable, and then again Divine Intervention in the form of a young Wehrmacht Captain, showing as much anger and disbelief as we were showing, broke the line and shouted to us, ‘Don’t go there, follow me, run for your lives’. We needed no urging and immediately cut to our right, down a very steep mountain grade, stumbling, falling, and dodging the volley of bullets from the frustrated SS troops. It was a nightmare. We lost many men but most of us literally fell down the mountain and out of that danger. Little did we suspect that we had just begun 140 days of constant walking, freezing, starving, and living an existence that was always near death.
We were headed for Koblenz and the crossing of the Rhine River into enemy territory and incarceration. In all of our training for battle, we were never mentally prepared for the contingency of capture. The anxiety, fear, doubt, and disbelief were overwhelming. The Germans had us. We were no longer free to do our own bidding.
The German Captain could do with us what he chose. Stories of brutality, death, experimentation, the horrible treatment of the Jews, and hundreds of other thoughts raced through our minds and chilled our blood. ‘Go this way, Go that way’. ‘Take off your clothes’. ‘Put your equipment here’ and ‘Verboten, Rausch, Haltzen, Kommen sie herein’ all became familiar commands, always backed up with a sadistic gesture, a rifle, and a push. Even though the Wehrmacht Captain had saved our lives, there was no love lost between us and we were quickly indoctrinated with the futility of thoughts of escape or expecting any special treatment.
The First 100 Miles we Learn Self-Defense
We felt lucky to be alive but we were still full of terror, dismay, and confusion resulting from our recent experience. At the time we had no real idea of a destination, just relief that it wasn’t a machine gun slaughter. The Captain and the Guard were moving us along quickly and soon the sound of the intense battle began to recede.
Koblenz, with its many bridges crossing the Rhine, soon appeared downstream. We were privileged to walk along the beautiful shores of the River and see in the distance the famous ‘Rhine Castles’. They soon faded from sight and memory as we encountered the confusion at the bridges which were available to cross over to Koblenz. We were all fearful and at the same time ever hopeful that our planes would bomb the bridges before we could be taken across. This seemed a very logical plan because it would stem the German reinforcements and shorten their advance to the west.
To our dismay, there were no planes. The heavy fog and clouds had grounded all of our planes. This was one of the factors which had permitted the German Army to make the successful attack which had resulted in our being captured at this point and at this time. The darkness and overcast sky matched our spirits, and we wondered how long it would be before our planes could get into the air again and possibly save us from any further incarceration. We started our crossing of the river; crowding, pushing, and struggling against the tide of the German soldiers being rushed to the west to reinforce their troops and their supply lines. Every type of vehicle was being employed: tanks, motorized half-tracks, horse-drawn carts, and even bicycles. Soldiers were walking ahead of, behind and alongside the vehicles, catching a ride when they could but always surging forward in a huge mass. It was a nightmare for everybody, soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war all seemed to be confused.
After getting across the river, it seemed that a direction had finally been determined and I first heard of a town called Falkenberg, the only significance of this being that at that point we were supposed to be transported by train to another destination but tragically this plan was doomed to failure. Getting out of Koblenz was no easy task. The streets we were traveling were extremely narrow, the houses being built close together and to the curbs. Koblenz was not a modern city by our standards. Masses of humanity were on the move and the German trucks and tanks were moving in the opposite direction from our column.
Often it was nearly impossible to get around a tank making a turn around the corner without being crushed by it. There were angry shouts of orders from the German Guards and we did not always know what was being said but the sign language is very effective in getting a point across, especially when accompanied by a push, a shove, or a rifle butt across your head. We had never really comprehended what the language barrier really meant until this time. German guttural sounds were no longer humorous but deadly serious and certainly malicious.
There was a tendency on our part to silently make fun of the guttural sounds we heard. There were a few men who knew a limited number of German words that they had learned in high school or college but under these circumstances, a few words didn’t help much.
(Hasenven, Belgium) Google Map Exact Location – 50°20’45.6″N 6°20’36.5″E