CHAPTER 3    THE DEATH  FACTORY  

 Ernest took the belt and buckle from the body of a dead German soldier when he was a war correspondent with the 22nd infantry .

This version is  corroborated in a letter from Colonel Charles Lanham to Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker. In correspondence with Hemingway scholar and Professor Rose Marie Burwell, I have learned that…     

'Lanham, who played a major role in collecting Hemingway's letters and in supplying his own memories of the period after 1944, tells Baker in one of those  letters that Hemingway took the belt buckle from a dead German soldier. No date for the acquisition or further identity of the donor is given.'

                                     -Professor Rose Marie Burwell


The battle of Hurtgenwald

That little patch of woods we’re fighting for ain’t any good to anybody. No good to the Germans. No good to us. It’s the bloodiest damn ground in all Europe.”

Soldier Swede Henley quoted in a Life Magazine article by Journalist William Walton

~

There are no tourist shops selling Hemingway t-shirts, and no Hemingway look-a-like contests at the local beerhaus.

Many residents in this rural village of Grosshau have never heard of Hemingway. But most everyone knows of the horror that happened here 60 years ago. The graveyards serve as a reminder.

The Battle of Hurtgen Forest (Hurtgenwald) lasted 19 days, and claimed 60 thousand casualties, a grisly war record for slaughter of human life.  Ironically it is little remembered other than by military historians and those few still alive who fought there.

Hemingway is but a brief footnote in most texts about the battle,.  In addition to war dispatches to Colliers, Hemingway used what he experienced in Hurtgenwald in one novel Across The River and Into the Trees, , and several poems he wrote to Mary Welsh.   They are among the few recordings  of Hemingway reading his work, and reflect an obvious preoccupation with death.

 

 

While those days in November and December 1944 were only a brief chapter in Hemingway’s life,  they also were among the most intense. No one who went into those woods expected to come out alive.

The Hurtgen Forest is located along the border with Belgium. In 1944 It was part of the Siegfried Line of defence against invasion of the fatherland. The Germans were dug in and well-fortified. The terrain, steep hills and gullies was ideal for defence. Tree-high artillery bursts, spewing thousands of lethal splinters, made movement on the forest floor difficult. Armour had no room to manoeuvre.  It was dead of winter and the worst possible weather conditions; snow, sleet, and rain.  A muddy quagmire slowed jeeps, tanks, trucks and troops trying to make it to the front, and added to the hell that was Hurtgen. 

 

This was an infantryman’s battle, up close and sometimes hand to hand. Bunkers provided protection for German mortars and artillery to rain down deadly accurate fire on the advancing allied troops.

In German, these woods are known as the Hurtgenwald. The Americans called them The Death Factory.

 

 

 


  • 'It was a place where it was extremely difficult for a man to stay alive even if all he did was be there. And we were attacking all the time and every day.'

                  Ernest Hemingway - Across The River And Into The Trees


    In World War I, fearing rejection as an army volunteer because of poor eyesight ,  Hemingway made it to the Italian front as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross . Severely injured by shrapnel in a bomb blast, he went home to Oak Park a decorated war hero.  He earned his journalist credentials as a front-line correspondent in the Spanish Civil War.  When World II broke out, he outfitted his fishing boat Pilar as a sub chaser and patrolled the Gulf stream in search of Nazi U-boats. He could read a terrain map, had a thorough knowledge of military history and battle tactics.  According to soldiers who were there with him, Hemingway was calm and fearless in dangerous situations.


  • The general asked Ernie why he had come to the war when he didn't have to.

    Oh." he said, " I got war fever like the measles."

    - John Carlisle - The True Gen    

  • drawing ©2005/2006 Kay Whittaker & Humdrumming ltd.


    Now 45 years old , Hemingway was in the midst of a less than amicable parting of ways with Martha Gelhorn. He had already selected wife number four, Mary Welsh from the ranks of the London overseas press corps. For Whom The Bell Tolls  had been published to wide acclaim. It was a popular read among soldiers and Hemingway was pleased to autograph their copies.

     

    It was Hemingway's good fortune to find himself attached as a war correspondent, to the 4th Army's 22nd Infantry Regiment, a seasoned, well-trained and disciplined fighting force which spearheaded the Normandy breakout.  Commanded by a feisty irreverent West Point graduate, Colonel Charles Lanham, Ernie and 'Buck' became friends right from the start.  Theirs was a strong friendship that  would last until Hemingway's death,  It was Lanham who Hemingway immortalized as the fictional General Cantwell in Across The River And Into The Trees .  And it is Lanham's correspondence with Hemingway Biographer Carlos Baker that provides much of the detail of the events of those days in the Hurtgen forest, The Death Factory, where the regiment suffered 80-percent casualties in eighteen days.  

     

    "A brisk fire fight was going on. Men were firing and advancing and dropping and firing, ...  And then I saw EH who had not yet reached our C.P.  He was standing bolt upright watching the fight with intense interest.  He was moving with the moving wave but I never saw him hit the ground. And this time there was no question at all that he was armed and using those arms."         

          - Charles 'Buck' Lanham-

    Hemingway's weapon of choice was a Thompson Submachine gun,  the same type of weapon he kept aboard the his fishing boat  Pilar to kill sharks. This time, the target was attacking Nazi soldiers trying to overrun the 22nd's command post.  Hemingway kept a notebook.  It is from a scribbled reference that I came to the conclusion that he shot and killed one German as he started across the Kall trail.  

     


    "I was in back of the pillbox and I shot the one in back of us across the road about 15 yards.    I had to shoot at him three times before he stopped.   He was lying in the middle of the road, and when the  Dl (?) came up he sort of scrounged up and it went over him and flattened him out."

    -Ernest Hemingway-


    In fact, Hemingway crossed the line from reporter to combatant a number of times. Exactly how many German soldiers he killed is open to debate.  William E. Cote, a professor at Michigan State University,  completed a detailed study on the subject and came to the conclusion that it was impossible to confirm an accurate body count. 

    'According to Hemingway himself, he killed either twenty-six or 122 men..'.

    -Professor William Cote

    "He was a storyteller.  He didn't know when the truth and fiction stopped."

    - William Walton - friend and fellow war correspondent

     


    -

     I went to Hurtgenwald to see where this firefight happened in the hope it might lead me to the origin of EH's Gott Mit Uns Nazi belt buckle.  I knew Hemingway took it from the body of a dead soldier.  But when and where?  Did he take it from someone he killed? Was it Hurtgenwald, or months earlier at Rambouillet in France and what were the circumstances? 

    Taking war souvenirs was common in World War Two.  Footlockers in attics all over the USA and the UK are filled with them.  Hemingway's house in Cuba Finca Vigia has brass shell casings, Nazi daggers, war medals and such in shelves and on tabletops all over the place.  

    The belt buckle was more than just another war souvenir to Hemingway.  It had a special significance, and that was what I was really seeking.  The search to find the identity of the previous owner was simply the pathway I took to accomplish my objective.

     

    I made four trips to Hurtgenwald, including visits on the anniversary dates of the battle trying to experience as close as possible the weather conditions as they were in 1944.  My first stop after checking in to the Schloss Hotel was the military museum in Vossenack.  I am indebted to Manfred Klinkenberg who gave me full access to files and exhibits, and to Arne Esser who volunteered to take me into the forest and help me find where the 22nd Infantry Regiment command post was located on November 19, 1944.

    It wasn't difficult and it didn't take long. The battle is well documented and maps are accurate down to finite detail.  Herr Esser is a teacher, amateur historian, and a fan of Ernest Hemingway's  novels and short stories.  He has lived in the area all his life.  He can read a terrain map,  and he knows his way around the Hurtgenwald.  

     

    The 22nd Infantry Regiment's command post  had unknowingly been established  near a series of bunkers  still occupied by Germans soldiers of the 272nd Volksgrenadiers bypassed by the Americans during the initial assault.  The fire fight happened when they tried to breakout. Arnie checked his  map, climbed  a nearby hill, and there it was, depressions in the earth , the remains of  the bunkers where  German soldiers had reined down mortar fire on the  22nd headquarters below. 

      

     

     

      

    " ...the cough of a  giant mortar to be followed by the silken whisper of a mortar shell as it plunged  night after  night toward our little clearing."

     - Charles 'Buck' Lanham-

          

                                             


     

    We hiked out of the forest that day along the route taken by the 22nd Infantry Regiment. Their objective was Grosshau, by all appearances a rural 'potato' village.  it was in reality a heavily fortified section of the German defense line.  Basements had been converted into bunkers.  Artillery, mortars and machine guns placed carefully to rein down fire on the advancing Americans.

     


     

    '...they were soldiers, so most of them got killed in those woods and when we took the three towns that looked so innocent and were really fortresses.' 

     

                                                    Ernest Hemingway - Across The River And Into The Trees

     


      

    © photo-Tom Sanders  

     

           

    Grosshau was almost completely destroyed.  By the time the Americans gained control the only building standing was the village church.  It was rebuilt and today looks much like it did before tithe battle.  I walked through Grosshau several times.  It seemed to me unusually quiet, very few people on the streets, almost deserted.  Brick sidewalks, brick buildings, the building blocks laid with precision...everything just so, everything in place. 

     

     I recalled what Hemingway had witnessed 60 years earlier.

     

    'We had put an awful lot of white phosphorus on the town before we got in for good, or whatever you would call it. That was the first time I ever saw a German dog eating a roasted German kraut. Later on I saw a cat working on him too. It was a hungry cat, quite nice looking, basically. You wouldn't think a good German cat would eat a good German soldier...'  

    Ernest Hemingway - Across The River And Into The Trees


    There is a story told of a villager who took it upon himself when the war ended to remove the dead bodies from the forest. Every day he would wrap the human remains in sacks and carry them out on his back so that they could receive a proper burial. It took him two years. Remains of those who fought and died there are still being found today.

    The Hurtgen Forest is haunted. I don’t have a degree in parapsychology. I am not particularly superstitious. But I tell you with certainty that these woods are haunted.

    Perhaps this explanation will help. When you do some rough math, body count divided into square feet, you quickly realize that within arms reach a few feet of where you are standing, the odds are that a soldier died.

    ~

    Hurtgenwald is one big tree farm. That is also what it was in 1944. Perhaps by coincidence, the tree growth during my visit was about the same as it had been during the battle. I realized that when I compared photos I had taken with battle photos.

     

    © photo-Tom Sanders

    Toward the end of our hike I excused myself from my companions, went alone into the woods near Grosshau where there had been especially heavy fighting and casualties. Sitting there quietly I would not have been the least surprised had some soldier’s ghost stumbled from the shadows in the eerie artificial twilight of the Hurtgen Forest.

    Author's Note:While searching for photos for this chapter of  GOTT MIT UNS I came across this  photo that convinces me Hemingway already had the Gott Mit Uns belt and buckle before he arrived in Germany in November 1944.  In this photo he is wearing the belt and buckle and he is wearing a summer uniform.  I  believe the answer to my quest is in France at a crossroads near the town of Rambouillet.

     

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