An American GI Describes 'Hellish' D-Day Invasion

Parachutes open overhead as waves of paratroops land in Holland during operations by the 1st Allied Airborne Army. (Photo: National Archives)
Parachutes open overhead as waves of paratroopers land in Holland during operations by the 1st Allied Airborne Army. (National Archives)

Joseph A. Dragotto fought with his unit from the beaches of Normandy on D-Day through Belgium and Germany. He fought in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest and the Elsenborn Ridge during the Battle of the Bulge. He provides a compelling foxhole-level account of a seasoned American G.I. on the business end of a rifle during the winter campaigns of 1944.

Today is November 8th, 1994. Born September 19th, 1924 in the city of Utica, New York. After the service, March 1943, discharged October 28th, 1945. Achieved the rank of Sergeant. During this incident I was PFC. Received training at Camp Blanding in Florida and the rest in England.

Arrived in England sometime in December 1943. Trained near the town of Exeter England prior to the D-Day invasion.

Made it to France June 6, 1944, D-Day. Was wounded at St. Lo, France and returned to my outfit sometime in August 1944. Fought through from France and Belgium ... the city of Aachen, Germany, capturing it in the later part of December and to the Hurtgen forest — which was hellish.

It was hellish. Bombs were bursting tree top level. Raining deadly fragments and splinters, wood, and metal down on us. After our first engagement, we fought ... we thought we were receiving a rest, but they were short-lived. We were assigned the position in the center of the line, and I was in Elsenborn Ridge where the German commander was pushing through with tanks and infantry, in a circle, Bastogne. I remember one incident. One incident, Company C, my unit was assigned center of the regiment overlooking a small town, name unknown, and it is approximately five miles from Bastogne. Snow fell all night, everything was white. So beautiful but soon to be nightmare. Company C Commander, Captain Lykes assigned one 50-cal machine gun on the left side of the line and one 50-cal machine gun on the right side of the line. Two light 30 machine guns in the center of the line. There had been mist formed during the night covering the entire area almost to the ground. You couldn't see a foot in front of you. That morning around 6:30 a.m., I was assigned to one of the 30-caliber machine guns with PFC Jones, Sergeant Weaver and Art Tozar. We were talking about home and about the weather in the area wondering when the mist would lift.

About 7:30 we heard planes overhead, but thought nothing of it. It was so quiet and peaceful when we heard someone yell, "Look out behind you." I turned around and I saw a group of men dressed in white coming out of the mist. Without thinking, I grabbed the 30-caliber, swung it around, and started firing. The men were approximately three feet in front of our positions. We killed about 15 men and captured 10. Some of the enemy made it to our positions, and we had to fight hand-to-hand. The Germans had, throughout the day, combat patrols of paratroopers behind us. The fighting was so intense. We had two men killed and four wounded. It was a gruesome sight. Men all around screaming and crying for help.

The white ground was now covered red with blood. If it wasn't for the person yelling, I would not be alive today. Our stand on the ridge, contributed to the relief of the 101st Airborne in Bastogne. My unit was Company C, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Division. I was assigned to the weapons platoon of a rifle company. The weapons platoon had three thirty light machine guns, four 60-mm mortars. The weather in the area was cold and snowy, and a thick mist hung close to the ground level. It was cold. I wore tanker pants, heavy G.I. pullover sweater, blue ... white poncho and a white cloth covering on my helmet to blend in with the snow. We had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the jeep, 12 BARs.

I carried a Thompson sub-machine gun and a 45-caliber pistol. Most of our conversations were about home, what we did before entering the service. Myself, John Bistrica, Sergeant Weaver and Tozar, still keep in touch. Five days prior to the engagement were ... on the first day Bastogne was surrounded by a large force. Second day, we started to receive reinforcement supply to build up our unit.

Third day, we had started a slow move towards Bastogne. It was slow because of the heavy snow and mist. Fourth day, we moved into our positions around the Elsenborn Ridge, and the fifth, we had dug in hoping for a fight. On the sixth day, occurred the incident that I describe above. Although my unit, Company C, had seen a lot of action in our time, the Company had seen Sicily, France, Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, we were not prepared for the winter in Europe.

The equipment was good but many times could not get warm clothing. It was so bad I wrote home for wool socks. The leadership was good; officers and NCOs were trained to cope in all situations. It could have been better. Coordination with our units was good, considering the weather. You had to depend on runners to get the info to other units. The weapons we had were good, but sometimes the M-1 carbines and machine guns would not fire.

We were so cold that we had to warm some of them so that they could fire. But what was good the chaplains tried to help, I give them a lot of credit.

Citations received: ETO Ribbon with five Battle Stars with Arrowhead for the Invasion of Normandy. Purple Heart, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Good Conduct Medal, Occupation Medal and a Combat Infantry Badge.

[Editor's Note: The recording for this transcript was created November 8, 1994, and is provided to by The Eisenhower Center for American Studies, University of New Orleans.]

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