John McCleese is in Heartland of Portsmouth. He is in the nursing home undergoing a couple of weeks rehabilitation for gout and various other ailments before returning to his home at Park Apartments, downtown Portsmouth. In six months he’ll turn 90, but he still carries the broad shoulders of a construction ironworker.
He had agreed to share some of his memories of those World War II days when he fought the Germans across the war-torn landscape of France and Belgium. His recollections are marked by long pauses as he stares into the distance. The interviewer wonders if he’s going to be able to remember those events of more than 65 years ago.
But then he begins to speak with remarkable clarity. His first combat action came in North Africa against the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. He was 23 — old compared to most of the other American fighters.
“They killed seven of our kids and wounded 36,” he said of that first battle.
When that campaign ended in victory for the Allies, he did not pursue the enemy up the Italian Boot. He sailed for England to begin training for the invasion at Normandy that would go down on June 6, 1944.
“They wanted us because we had combat experience,” he said.
He went in on Omaha Beach with Company C, 39th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, a few days after the first wave of Allied soldiers waded ashore.
McCleese had spent months in training to become a combat rifleman. He became proficient and efficient with the M-1 and the Browning automatic rifles. His job and that of his fellow American infantrymen would be to kill enemy soldiers in what would turn out to be the bloodiest war in history.
When the training was over and the sounds and smell of the battlefield were at hand, he wasn’t at all sure he could take the life of another human being. But after he saw, heard of and experienced a few of the atrocities committed against young American soldiers by Hitler’s demonized Nazi troops, especially the SS Panzer group, the task was taken in stride.
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
“German power was awesome,” he said. “They used it ruthlessly.”
Once, his Company C and others of the 39th Infantry Regiment went in to relieve the 16th Infantry Regiment.
“The Germans had killed them all but six. Six men out of two companies were left alive,” he said. “I’d never seen our men so angry. In this one little town, after our artillery had leveled it, we went in to mop up. We even killed the chickens and the pigs.”
They were on the Belgium border, at the Siegfried Line, when they encountered their first German pillbox.
“Its big gun had been eating us alive,” he said. “We managed to surround it. One of our bulldozers pushed dirt against the escape door. We poured gasoline down the vent hole and threw a match in. Twenty-eight of them were burned to death in there.”
In one little village that the Germans had evacuated ahead of McCleese and his fellow GIs, they saw a troop truck with a canvass covering start up and begin to pull out.
“We shouted, ‘Halt!’ The truck sped off down the street. We emptied our Browning automatics into the rear covering. The truck crashed, we shot the driver, and 18 bodies of German soldiers, mutilated by our machine gun bullets, were found under the canvass.”
The 9th Infantry Division saw plenty of combat, first in North Africa and then in France and Belgium and finally Germany. The division’s performance in the Battle of the Bulge won it the nickname, “Old Reliable.”
The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle that American forces experienced in World War II. It was fought from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, in the Ardennes Mountains, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
Germany failed in its counterattack on Allied forces that began Dec. 16, but it cost the lives of more than 19,000 young American soldiers to turn them back and put them on the run.
The Germans’ attack on Dec. 16 surprised American and Allied forces. Hitler’s goal was to split the British and American Allied line in half, capture Antwerp, Belgium, and then to proceed to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, forcing the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis Powers’ favor. It was planned with the utmost secrecy during heavy, overcast weather when the Allies’ strong air forces would be grounded.
“We had infantry with the 1st Division on our right flank and the 106th Division (referred to as “The Lost Division” in a post-war book about the battle) was on our left flank,” McCleese said. “The Germans surprised the 106th and went right through them. They killed the American kids right in their foxholes. They didn’t even get to fire their rifles.
“But they didn’t get through us. We stopped them. We dug in and fought six days.”
The defeat left many experienced German units severely depleted of men and equipment as survivors retreated to the defenses of the Siegfried Line.
Before they managed to turn the Germans back, though, the “Malmedy Massacre” took place north of the 9th Division’s position. Crack German troops with the Sixth SS Panzer Army, made up of 4,400 men and 600 vehicles, had seized an U.S. Army fuel depot and paused to refuel before pushing on westward.
Just past noon, near the hamlet of Bauqnez, on a hill halfway between the towns of Malmedy and Ligneuville, they encountered element\s of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, U.S. 7th Armored Division.
After a brief battle, they took the Americans prisoner, disarmed them, and stood them with some Americans captured earlier in a field near an intersection of highways. There were about 150 prisoners in all. For reasons undetermined, instead of marching them to the rear and on toward a POW camp, they shot them all down.
News of the killings spread quickly through the American and Allied lines.
“We would show the Germans no mercy, and their massacre of unarmed soldiers helped us to eventually turn them back,” McCleese said.
He was awarded six battle stars and a number of campaign ribbons but, “Thank the Lord,” he said, he did not win the Purple Heart.
He said the closest he came to being shipped home in a pine box was just after he crossed the Rhine River. “I was standing right next to a sergeant, talking to him, when a sniper got him, the bullet striking him between the eyes just below the helmet line. It could have been me. I managed to fall out of the line of fire.”
On Easter Sunday 1945 McCleese and his company, pulling a 90 mm artillery piece down past a huge graveyard, had worked their way through a draw and around the flank of the Germans. The Germans had an 88 mm cannon that was inflicting a lot of damage on the Americans.
“There were six Germans on the gun. They did not know we were even down in there, much less that we were loading the 90 and zeroing in,” McCleese said. “Our projectile from the 90 hit the 88 right in the breech (the part behind the bore). When the smoke cleared the bodies of three Germans were in the pine trees. The other three were no where to be seen.”
McCleese was discharged from the military in time to be home for Christmas 1945.
“In my regiment, we had 8,000 killed, 36,000 wounded and 57 missing in action,” he said.
“There is not a better soldier in the world than the American soldier,” he said. “And these kids in Afghanistan will be no different. They have the fighting ability, and they will get he job done, just as we got the job done, if we give them what they need to get it done with.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.